Sharp leadership

Jerry HeinlenSOG CEO Jerry Heinlen has a mission: to increase awareness of a brand that got its start in covert operations.

If you’re not an aficionado of specialty knives and outdoor tools, or the kind of person who pages through Outdoor Magazine’s seasonal gear guides, you might not know about SOG Specialty Knives and Tools. CEO Jerry Heinlen (MBA 1987) is counting on a career managing top brands, and a talented team, to help change that.

The SOG story begins in Vietnam, where members of a highly classified US special ops unit—known as MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group)—carried a bowie knife greatly admired for its form and function. That knife would later inspire a young designer named Spencer Frazer to found SOG Specialty Knives and undertake a reproduction of the fabled bowie knife. That single commemorative model became Frazer’s starting point for designing a full line of innovative tools.

His story

Meanwhile, the story of Jerry Heinlen’s career begins during his undergraduate years at the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. Upon graduation, he served as a deck officer aboard vessels operated by the Military Sealift Command.

“I had little knowledge about the maritime industry before I entered Kings Point,” says Heinlen. “I grew up as the fifth of six children in a family that valued education—both of my parents were educators. I chose Kings Point because it offered an excellent education, and it was at the academy that I developed a love of the sea—but my plans had always included graduate school and a career ashore.”

Heinlen pursued his MBA at Foster in order to broaden his focus and equip himself for transitioning between industries. He specialized in both marketing and finance, and although he considered a job with Hewlett-Packard in finance after graduation, he took the marketing path, joining the Ore-Ida Foods divisions of H. J. Heinz to learn consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketing and brand management.

“The CPG arena was, and still is, a fantastic training ground for young marketers and business people of all disciplines, and five years working on brands including Weight Watchers frozen foods, Ore-Ida, and Steak-UMM sandwich steaks gave me an excellent business foundation,” says Heinlen.

After leadership positions at big brands, including Waterloo Industries (manufacturers of Craftsman), Dremel, and Skil power tools, he returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2006 to lead Yakima Products, Inc. in Portland, Oregon. Yakima was owned by private equity investors and Heinlen’s role was to turn the iconic brand around and expand internationally. Mission accomplished, he transitioned the business to new owners in 2011.

Cut to SOG

“I wanted to stay in the Northwest, and networking led me to the opportunity to be CEO of SOG,” says Heinlen. Since joining SOG in January, he’s already forged ahead with a goal to double the company’s current size over the next four to five years. “We are off to a great start and expect to grow at a healthy double-digit pace in 2013. Long-term, our goal is to continue to establish SOG as a market-leading brand and company in the outdoor products space.”

Certainly Heinlen’s deep understanding of brand management will play a large role in meeting SOG’s goals. But he believes that an environment of open communication ultimately fuels high-performance teams. “I encourage everyone to speak up about challenges early enough to enable others to help with a solution before a deadline arrives, to over-communicate during times of complexity, and to be unafraid of articulating what they know—and what they don’t know—about an issue. Good communication is the oil that keeps a team’s engine running smoothly.”

And great leaders have a passion for on-brand communication that never dulls.