Interview: Carl Elsener, Global CEO of Victorinox

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What amazes me about the Swiss Army Knife is that even though it has such a long history (fun fact: it turns 125 this year), you’ll still find them in so many EDCs today. Part of this is because Victorinox, the makers of the original Swiss Army Knife (or SAK, as it’s called), continue to come up with ways to make their classic tools appeal to the modern EDC crowd.

The main draw would be the quality and utility of the tools—something I think is safe to say most EDCers can get behind. But beyond that, they’re highly collectible. They come in different sizes, materials, tool combinations, and colors. For many EDCers, they satisfy that itch for picking up new gear to add to the rotation.

Last Thursday, Victorinox opened a new retail store in NYC at Rockefeller Center to celebrate the SAK’s 125th birthday. For collectors, this is welcome news. The store stocks some new collectible gear, like this limited edition Climber in gold just in time for the 2016 Olympics. But you’ll find much more than just SAKs here. For example, you can see the Climber’s sitting pretty next to a paracord INOX, one of Victorinox’s tough-as-nails watch offerings.

Carl Elsener, the global CEO of Victorinox, flew in from Switzerland to kick off the store’s grand opening. I took this rare opportunity to scope the new location and talk SAKs with Mr. Elsener himself.

In this quick interview below, Mr. Elsener shares what’s in his pockets, what model of SAK he swears by, and two incredible stories he’s heard over the years of a SAK coming to the rescue. It’s been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Could you show us your EDC?

Mr. Elsener: I have three knives on me today. Can I leave my phone out? It’s not too important.

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Mr. Elsener’s EDC is minimalist, and understandably 100% Victorinox gear. I noticed he keeps his keys on a long chain anchored in his pocket to his larger knife—a pretty clever way to prevent losing your keys without having to fuss with clips or keychains. His ultra slim cardholder turned out to be an early prototype (perks of being the CEO, I guess). His watch caught my eye too—it’s a titanium version of the INOX, coming out later in August this year.

Since your great grandfather started this company, your family has done a lot of work to help people around the world be prepared. Why would you say carrying a tool is important to you, personally?

Mr. Elsener: I was lucky to grow up in a knife factory. Even today with cell phones and technology, when a child receives their first pocket knife, you can still see a glow in their eyes. It was the same for me. When I received my very first pocket knife from my father, I felt like a grown up. It was very special for me knowing that my father and his team were manufacturing these knives. I don’t travel without my Swiss Army Knife, because as you said, I feel prepared.

What’s your all-time favorite Swiss Army Knife?

Mr. Elsener: I have to travel a lot for business, but I also like to hike. Because of this, I like the Traveller very much. It has all the main important features, but it also has a digital watch on the scale. It shows me American Time, Swiss Time, altitude when hiking… I had this knife with me on Mt. Kilimanjaro! For me, it’s very practical for hiking and traveling.

My Traveller has a little ballpoint pen that I use for signing important contracts. I use the knife everyday to cut an apple, to clean my teeth with the toothpick. If I have a splinter, I can use the tweezers to take it out. I have a little screwdriver in my corkscrew and I need it to adjust my glasses or sunglasses. And today, for the grand opening, of course I need my scissors to cut the ribbon!

What about for everyone else? If there was just one SAK everyone should have, what would you recommend?

Mr. Elsener: It depends — I’d actually recommend two knives. Either the Climber, because it has all the basic tools as well as scissors, which is one of the most important tools you could have. Otherwise, I’d recommend one of the smaller Classic knives for the keychain. I prefer the Signature because it has a very practical ballpoint pen. And when you open the file, it fits really nice in your hand. It also has an LED that’s perfectly aligned for writing. So when you wake up in the middle of the night with one of your ingenious ideas, you can write it down right away.

At this point, I mention my favorite SAK is the Manager. He notes that it’s similar but has an added caplifter and screwdrivers. His genuine passion for these tools is endearing, and I’m convinced he’s memorized every SAK ever made.

Can you recall an anecdote where your SAK or a customer’s saved the day in a surprising or interesting way?

Mr. Elsener: There are just so many. We receive stories from customers all over the world. I’d like to share two stories which I love the most. The first story was read around the world, featured in Reader’s Digest.

It’s about a little girl on an airplane who was eating candy, when she started to choke. Passengers turned her upside down and tried putting an oxygen mask on her, but nothing helped. Fortunately, there was a doctor on the plane. A Swiss passenger was there too, and happened to have a Classic with him. With the help of the small blade, the doctor performed a tracheotomy to save the child. She survived and recovered with no infection or anything.

The second story comes from Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who’s spent more than 4000 hours in space. In his book, he describes how he had to dock his shuttle to a Russian space station. The Russians had given him tools to open the hatch. But when Hatfield started unscrewing the hatch with the tools, he soon realized he couldn’t get it all done. He wanted to go back to get more tools, but then he remembered he had a Swiss Army Knife in his pocket. He went on to write, “Never leave the planet without a Swiss Army Knife.”

That’s awesome. Next time I head out into space, I’ll remember to bring mine. One last question, besides this new store, what else can fans of Swiss Army Knife look forward to?

Mr. Elsener: At the moment, our aluminum knives and collector’s knives are very much on trend. We have a very nice collaboration with Nespresso (the coffee company). Nespresso coffee comes in aluminum capsules, and they approached us to help recycle them and use the metal in our knives’ handles. In this first collaboration knife, we’ve made handles from completely recycled Nespresso capsules, and have chosen one of the colors of the pods as a limited edition handle color. We’ve done this in Switzerland so far, but Nespresso may be interested in bringing this limited edition in other colors to other countries.

The Alox Pioneer is super popular with our readers. I’m glad to see them in more colors! Thank you so much for taking the time.

You can check out this wall of SAKs, as well as other Victorinox gear and new releases at their just-opened Rockefeller Center location.

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