How often have we lamented over the fact that we missed the fortuitous opportunity to sit down and talk with those that were part of the cutlery industry’s history. How awe-inspiring would it be to spend time with W.R. Case, the Brown Brothers, or even with one of the English or German Master Cutlers from the turn of the century? The stories they could tell and the revelations they could expose to us.
As the doors of our beloved Camillus plant closed down and fire claimed the remnants of the structure, it becomes even more important to safeguard that history and store it somewhere for impending generations to relive. So we’re very honored at Camillus Heritage that we were able to sit down with Mr. Jim Furgal, the former President of Camillus Cutlery Company.
The following transcript exposes some little known facts about the Camillus Cutlery Company and the town that propagated up around it. Please read the words judiciously and comprehend that this maybe the last chance to hear it directly from one that lived and breathed the metal dust from the blades, felt the heat from the furnaces, and smelt the aroma of the bone as it was prepared for the handles.
No doubt this interview will be scrutinized by cutlery historians in the future. The magnificent opportunity to hear from one of the frontrunners of a very famous cutlery company and gain his prospective on its success and failures will be a learning tool for many. It is easy to recognize the pride that Mr. Furgal had in his company and his personal accomplishments. Although the original Camillus as we knew it is now gone, it will live on forever through documentation just like this.
Camillus Heritage: Can you give us a brief synopsis of how you ended up at Camillus and the various positions that you held at the company?
Jim Furgal: Sure. Let me start by giving you some background information. During the late 1800s, a man named Charles Sherwood started a cutlery next to the Nine Mile Creek in Camillus, New York. A few years later, Adolph Kastor purchased that company.
The Kastor family had started as knife importers from Germany, but had been looking to purchase a cutlery because of some high tariff laws that the United States had imposed on steel products, including knives. So the Kastor brothers purchased the cutlery, and because they already had the distribution, they were able to turn it into a success story.
One of the first super sales people that worked for Kastor Bros. was Albert Baer. He joined the company in 1922 and landed the lucrative Sears Roebuck account the following year. In 1930, Albert Baer would also sign Babe Ruth to endorse autographed baseball bat figural knives. This would be the first of many endorsements. In 1938, Albert Baer left Camillus, but he retained a major stake in the company, which he acquired a few years before from August Kastor, one of Adolph Kastor’s brothers.
In 1963, Camillus fell into really bad financial shape and Mr. Baer sensed an opportunity. He gave his Camillus shares that he still owned to his daughters and they purchased the rest of the stock from the Kastor family.
Around that time Nilo Miori was appointed President of Camillus Cutlery. He focused on the private label business, and that really rebuilt the company. Unfortunately, by the late 1970s the private label business was starting to be impacted by Japanese manufacturers, which really hurt Camillus.
In addition, the United States was in a recession, and interest rates climbed to double digit levels. That had a huge negative influence on our primary end customers such as steel workers, auto workers, coal miners, etc.
Also the Vietnam War had ended a few years earlier. And as a result, so did military sales, which had always been a sizeable part of the Camillus business.
So the Baer family decided to attract someone with more sales skills. I was a family member, as I had married one of Albert Baer’s granddaughters, and I had gained lots of sales experience from previous employment. I joined the company in 1979 as sales person.
Over the next few years, business remained tough. KA-BAR, one of our major customers, went bankrupt and Buck, for which we had manufactured lots of knives, started making its own product line.
The cutlery was basically in trouble, and that’s when I had the opportunity to see if I could do something to help improve the situation. In 1987, I became president. That’s when we came out with the first full line of Remington knives. It really was a successful limited edition of the bullet knife.
Becoming the exclusive supplier to Remington was what got us back on our feet. I had started with the Remington Reproduction Collectibles, which turned out to be fantastic. It was a great knife that eventually expanded into a full line series. Remington became a major customer for us for the next 20 years. Camillus was back in business!
In addition, we picked up plenty more private-label business in later years for brands such as Sears Craftsman, Chicago Cutlery, Crosman Airguns, United, Mooremaker’s, Colt, Schrade, Old Timer, Uncle Henry, Gerber, W.R. Case, and even a few items for Spyderco. Walking through our factory was truly like a journey through the knife industry.
Mind, the challenges of private-label manufacturing shouldn’t be underestimated, as there’s an enormous diversity in features and patterns offered in the knife market. Each private-label customer had different objectives and criteria for their product, which required increasingly different considerations in steels, patterns, processes, hardness, locking mechanisms, opening mechanisms. finishes, sharpness, edge retention, etc.
In what other ways did you expand Camillus Cutlery?
Well we became involved with a couple of other companies. We worked together with Santa Fe Stoneworks, a small manufacturer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were supplying them with parts and skeletons. We even purchased part of the company. We also became associated with Smoky Mountain Knife Works, and became partners with Kevin Pipes who today continues to run that business.
Did you use any outside designers?
Mostly, we used our own in-house designers. We relied heavily on Phil Gibbs, an extremely talented man, whose father had operated two factories in Sheffield, England. He was Head of New Product Development, and was able to adapt the designs of custom knife makers to the manufacturing capabilities of the Camillus factory.
On occasion we also worked together with people like Bob Terzuola, Darryl Ralph, Jerry Fisk, or Ethan Becker, all really talented guys who contributed to the trend of outside designers becoming more incorporated into the industry. And as part of “Our Very Best” (O.V.B.) series we had the pleasure of working with Reggie Barker and Jim Crowell. Camillus certainly learned a lot from the custom knife makers’ approach, insights and requirements.
What triggered the bankruptcy of Camillus Cutlery?
Well the entire industry was severely impacted by Chinese imports. In 1987, I testified for the Federal Trade Commission because we felt the industry was being hurt by imports. We lost that case. And now, from the group of industry members that testified, the only one that’s remaining is Buck. Everyone else went bankrupt or moved to China.
But what also hurt us is 9/11. We had large customers that stopped buying knives because you couldn’t take them on planes anymore. It may sound silly, but many of our knives were handed out at conferences, trade shows, or sales meetings. Before 9/11, these visitors would get back on a plane the next day and carry their luggage on and off with knives in it. However, you couldn’t do that anymore after 9/11 and that caused a real problem.
Also, we were large knife suppliers for the Boy Scouts of America. But all of a sudden, kids weren’t allowed to carry knives anymore. So our business with the Boy Scouts also deteriorated.
Of course, I wasn’t perfect either. We made some mistakes along the way too. A lot of things just came together until we had to close.
Did you remain president until the company closed in 2007?
I resigned in the fall of 2006, but I stayed there because I still had signature power. I tried to help out as much as I could.
Was the eventual demise of Camillus an event that was bound to occur as the industry changed, or do you think that looking back in hindsight certain events or actions might have saved the Company?
In most cases, a knife isn’t an essential tool anymore. So in order to survive, you really had to develop a niche and turn it into a modern business. The knife industry also became much more design driven, whereas before it was manufacturing driven.
What do you feel are the biggest successes that you achieved at Camillus?
Well, the family was talking about closing the factory in 1987 because they were losing money. They already had plans for how to disburse the machinery. So I gave it another 20 years of continued production.
I’m also very proud of the Remington Collectable series. It was an extremely successful program and it fit into our production capabilities. We incorporated our traditional styles and techniques with some very innovative patent designs.
Do you collect knives personally?
I have a very small collection, which mostly consists of prototypes. Things that we tried to do, but didn’t work out for some reason. So it’s really a very personal collection. I would have to explain each piece to understand what it really means. But nevertheless, some pretty interesting stuff.
Do you still follow the cutlery business?
Occasionally I will do some expert testimony for criminal cases regarding knives. I live in New York City and over here state laws are differently interpreted than they are upstate. So that keeps me a little bit in the loop.
As a final question. Do you have anything else that you would like us to remember about Camillus?
Oh yes. What I remember most are the really terrific people that worked there. In the old days people came from Europe and were given a new chance in America. In many cases several members from the same family worked at the cutlery. The factory even shut down two weeks in the summer so that all family members working there could vacation together. Things like that truly strengthened the bond of our workforce.
Thank you. Best of luck.