On today’s podcast we continue our season talking to successful companies who produce their own products.
Today’s guest is Joel Trusty, co-owner and President of Trusty-Cook, a company that manufactures a diverse group of industrial polyurethane products such as dead blow hammers and spindle liners for bar loaders. Joel says one of the keys to the company’s success has been talking to customers about what they need.
Joel talks about the origins of Trusty-Cook. His father designed ship-to-shore missiles for the military. When he tired of that, he moved on and started a company making custom electronics. He hired a man named Cook, who went to Chrysler and came back with a purchase order for 3,000 polyurethane wear pads for an assembly line, something that the company did not make. In response, Joel’s father bought a used pizza oven, bought a book on polyurethane and figured out how to hand-batch the order. Two years later, he invented the dead blow hammer, one of the main products Trusty-Cook manufactures to this day. (2:55)
Joel explains the company’s polyurethane dead blow hammer. It is constructed to have good power when striking, but it avoids damaging the target or sending a lot of vibration through the user’s elbow. (3:40)
Joel says it was difficult to get into the market at first. The products were expensive to make, but the company landed deals with Matco Tools, Cornwell Tools, and Snap-On. Originally Stanley Tools wanted a private label as well but instead decided to buy out the company in 1982. In the mid-1980s a recession hit, and Stanley wanted to move the company under the same roof as a screwdriver plant in South Carolina. Joel’s father and brother agreed to assist the move in return for commercial ground and two product lines Stanley Tools was no longer interested in. They moved the plant and founded Trusty-Cook. The non-compete for the hammer ran out in the mid-1990s, so they created the Trusty-Cook brand. They also landed a private brand called Estwing out of Rockford, IL. Matco and Cornwell came back on board, and Trusty-Cook continues to make sledgehammers for Snap-on. The company also makes a line for NAPA. (4:00)
Joel explains that Trusty-Cook’s polyurethane hammer is made to replace hammers made of lead or brass. It is constructed so that it will not spark and not damage the material it is hitting. The durability of polyurethane is what inspired Joel’s father to create the hammer. Joel also talks about his father’s other inventions, including a machine to cook hamburgers in 6 seconds and the first blood machine to analyze kidneys, which is still in use today. The hamburgers tasted terrible, so that invention was not taken to market. He says inventing new products comes naturally to him and other members of his family. (6:30)
Joel says Trusty-Cook now makes 29 different hammers, which Joel calls a “rock on a stick.” The price to make them has not changed much since the ‘70s. Joel says the average retail price of a Trusty-Cook hammer is in the $50 range. The hammers are made in Indianapolis in-house. The company produces the steel components and the polyurethane for the hammers’ exterior. Each hammer is handmade using no automation. (listen for more a detailed description) (9:55)
Joel discusses other Trusty-Cook products, including polyurathane spindle liners for bar loaders for CNC machines. He talks about how the company got the idea for the product when a customer called up wanting to reduce a diameter in his bar loader he was using with a Mazak CNC lathe. Now the company makes spindle liners for running bar stock with irregular shapes such as hex and rectangle. It also makes spindle liners to enable running bars less than a millimeter in diameter. The OEMs selling machine tools refer customers to Trusty-Cook, rather than bundling them in a sale. (11:30)
Joel says that listening to customers is the number one reason why his company is successful. He describes feedback he received on forum for garage mechanics. The mechanic wanted a ball peen hammer for use in tight work spaces. In response, Trusty-Cook developed a large-headed ball peen hammer with a short handle. On the same forum, another mechanic asked if a similar product could be built with a flat end on both sides, so Trusty-Cook started making this design of hammer as well. (19:10)
Joel talks about why the company was monitoring the forums. At the time there appeared to be a lot of confusion about who was making various products because of all of the different brands distributing for Trusty-Cook. Joel says Trusty-Cook doesn’t participate often on online forums, but the company does post when it develops something new and asks for feedback. It has developed relationships over time with some of the users on the forum. Joel says Trusty-Cook will sell limited editions of various products at a low price to some users to get them to try them. (23:00)
Joel talks about building relationships with customers like custom bike builder Eddie Trotta star of the TV show Thunder Cycle. Joel says Trotta was having difficulty holding tolerances on his Mazak and put in an order to Trusty-Cook for spindle liners for his machines. Eddie was so happy with the results he gave a free testimonial. Eddie later called and asked if the company could make a dead blow bossing mallet to shape metal. Joel says he didn’t know what one was at the time. With Eddie’s feedback Trusty-Cook created three different polyurethane bossing mallets for him free of charge. Eddie said the hammers cut the work time in half. Today Trusty-Cook ships them all over the world. (25:55)
Joel describes the company’s relationship with bar feeder companies, LNS and IEMCA. He told the companies that if they came to him with an idea for a polyurethane product, he would work with them free of charge. He describes a split block Trusty-Cook designed for Edge bar feeders. (see video) He says LNS also called them with a predicament, in which some bar feeder channels were filling with lubricant and swelling over time. Trusty-Cook now makes all the channel sets for LNS. (28:10)
Joel says feedback from both endusers and OEMs is Trusty-Cook’s lifeblood.(29:40)
Joel shares advice for new companies who want to bring a product to market. He says that too many creators spend time perfecting something because they are afraid to test their product on the market. He says a company needs to test the sales end of things so it knows if a product has the potential to be successful. He suggests sending new products at no charge to friends or trusted contacts in an industry and letting them try it out to get feedback. It might cost money to produce the product, but so does doing nothing while you perfect it. (30:05)
Joel reflects on something new he has learned recently. He says the week before was the first time he could recall that he started feeling stressed about all of the negative stuff going around the world—the election, the pandemic etc. He says he had to take a step back to reexamine what he does, stay focused, make sure he is doing what he likes, and make sure he his doing things for the right reasons. (31:45)
Question: What is the most important tool you have in your shop?