Mike Hoefer, former EVP of Sales & Marketing at MIZU and EVP of Business Development at Nixon Watches was recently appointed as the CEO of The James Brand, a boutique knife and tool company based out of Portland, Oregon. Mike took some time to talk with us here at Knife Informer about the move and plans for the brand in the future.
Mike, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. What made you decide to make the move to The James Brand?
My first interaction with the knife world was 20+ years ago at Paragon Sports in NYC. I was a sunglasses sales rep, performing my usual servicing on the glass display case, which happened to sit me right next to Paragon’s knife case. A customer approached the case of knives, so I asked if I could help out. He then pointed to a particular knife and followed up with a technical question. This is when I thought, ‘Oh boy, should I fake my way through this?’ When I mentioned that I was not an employee, he shared with me everything I wanted to know about the knife. He elaborated on the materials, the knife maker, why the cost was $1500 – all selling points which led to why he was going to buy it. From that point forward, I was hooked on the intricacy that makes up the world of knives.
In later years, when I was introduced to The James Brand, I was first intrigued by the product, then deeply fascinated with the story behind it. As I looked at the growth of the brand, I recognized how my background could assist in developing the infrastructure around the product and brand story to increase engagement. Between my previous background and genuine interest in the knife community, The James Brand was a very natural move and I am stoked to be involved in an industry that maintains such a dedicated and knowledgeable consumer base.
How will your experience at MIZU and Nixon translate to working with The James Brand?
My experience from both MIZU and Nixon will definitely add value moving forward with The James Brand. At Nixon, we built the brand by focusing on a niche category within a larger channel that had not previously highlighted watches. Similar to The James Brand, we built Nixon around the idea of creating product to fill a void in the market while also taking a respectful position when introducing new product to customers. This void is where I like to live and operate. When I left Nixon, we were distributed in 85 countries, had over 200 employees with offices in 6 countries, which led me out of the small business realm. MIZU was instrumental in re-introducing me to this, reminding me how much fun it was to be small and growing rapidly.
Let’s talk about the brand. What differentiates The James Brand from other high-end knife brands?
There are so many great brands out there that we love, but I would say the differences are our subtle yet modern design cues that capture The James Brand customer. Whether you’re in the office, at home or on an adventure, it is our goal to design a knife that you can universally carry with you. The James Brand is positioned with authenticity in the creative, modern, outdoor and action space. All of us at The James Brand grew up and have built our careers in these channels, so we have great connections and authentic relationships to leverage in an organic way. So many of the people in these worlds use and carry knives but they haven’t always had an authentic brand or product that they could connect with.
So where did the name come from?
This is actually our most asked question. James is a fictional character – a crossover of James Bond, James Dean and James Cook (who discovered the Hawaiian Islands). These are all people that would definitely need a knife in their pocket every day. People who would want a knife that looked amazing, worked great for a wide variety of EDC tasks and was just as well suited for the pocket of a tuxedo as it was clipped onto a pair of coveralls. These people are not Jim or Jimmy. They are James. They are committing to higher risk, but also higher reward, activities. Living a life that we sort of all aspire to live. We didn’t want to name the brand after any one person in the company because as a brand, James is an idea that is bigger than any one of us.
Who designs the knives and tools for The James Brand? Who produces them?
We work through a collaborative process as opposed to having one designer bust out ideas and concepts. To ensure we think holistically about the product, we turn towards our internal and external colleagues and produce product with different partners, both in the USA and abroad. To enable The James Brand to be able to do more than a singular shop, we are always looking to diversify the talent-pool we work with. For example, we launched The James Brand with the Chapter, a Ti framelock, then immediately followed up with a slip-joint. Not many knife makers or vendors are able to offer quality product in that broad of a range. At The James brand, we are looking to do just that.
What’s new for The James Brand as far as products are concerned?
As far as products, we are very excited about the Folsom which launched in December. We are also thrilled about our Swell collaboration with like-minded brand Discommon, which just dropped into the market again as a limited edition blacked out version of the original knife design. We are working on a couple of major new releases for Holiday ’17, but can’t talk too much more about those right now.
What products can we look forward to in the next year from The James Brand?
We aren’t ready to talk about future products, we have lots to learn still. Our goal is to truly think about the pocket and how people interact with the everyday tools that they carry with them. The pocket represents readiness to us and we are very much focused on designing modern, minimal everyday carry tools that fit that build.
Can you share some of the long term plans for the brand?
Our goal for 2017 is to establish the guard rails for the brand so that we can operate safely and efficiently for the next several years. For the most part, we’ve set our pricing structure. It may go up in price on some very unique products, but in general we feel good about our price structure. We just need to reinforce those price points. We are not focused on the downward part of the market, we would get clobbered there and for us, it’s not that exciting. I look forward to obtaining more retailers, and if we do things right, hopefully they will call us. Overall, we want to stay very disciplined in our distribution. We don’t want to grow our points of sale until we know the brand is ready to support this growth.
What’s the target demographic for James Brand and is that likely to evolve?
Within the knife market, the average age of our customer is quite a bit younger, even with our higher price points. We are focused on the person who may be new to including knives as part of their everyday carry. With The James Brand, we are looking to cement ourselves in the everyday carry space by introducing a new category to those who may think of knives only as tactical tools or for hunting and fishing exclusively. At the same time, it’s critical to us that we make products that the classic “knife nut” would love and carry. The community is very tight knit, and has very high standards. We’ve been welcomed by the crew and they have helped us along the way to make each product better. There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing one of our knives alongside of many of the makers that we respect and admire.
What’s your favorite knife from the James Brand lineup? What do you carry on a daily basis?
I love the Chapter and the County is a close 2nd. They are very different, but both seem to really speak to me. I carry the Chapter as a regular part of my everyday carry. I like a knife with a clip and it feels a bit more substantial in hand even with its minimal design.