In the latest issue of Recoil (Issue 17) there is a 5.11 Loadout insert. We interviewed Tom Davin, the 5.11 CEO, for the booklet but ended up just using quotes through out the pages. We thought some of you would appreciate the full interview we did with Tom. Enjoy.
How did someone with your background end up as the CEO of 5.11?
So, my business background really is one of leadership, and that all stems from my time as a marine. When I left Duke University I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines Corps, and went directly into infantry. Later, I was selected to join 1st Recon Battalion. That’s where I got introduced to all the high-speed tactics one learns in special operations. I even had the parachute group that was the deep-recon platoon as part of Alpha Company, 1st Recon Battalion.
So it was really at that point in my career where I started to become a serious gear-head. I was spending a lot of time hanging around the paraloft, modifying nylon web-gear, packs, bags, parachute harnesses, scuba gear, with riggers. Got to be really good friends with guys who had industrial sewing machines. Ultimately, after 1st Recon Battalion, I went to 3rd Recon Battalion as the operations officer. I finished my 6-year career as a tactics instructor at Quantico, Virginia, teaching infantry tactics to the new 2nd Lieutenants who had just been commissioned.
It was at that point that I was introduced to the FBI Academy. Occasionally, when the FBI needed some heavy weapons training, I and some other offensive tactics instructors would head over and meet with the firearms training unit or other folks who were teaching at the FBI academy. At that point, in the mid-80s, the FBI really had very little in the way of heavy weapons, machine guns, mortars, things like that. I’m not sure they have any mortars today. (Laughing)
Kind of interesting that the circle gets completed by me being here at 5.11 as CEO, going back to Quantico, Virginia, to speak with FBI agents in training, FBI National Academy students who are police chiefs from around the world, and visit those folks. And they’re now wearing 5.11.
5.11 really began its life at Quantico with the FBI. Can you tell us how that came to be, and how the FBI basically was the impetus for the brand?
As I mentioned, when I was at Quantico in the mid-80s, teaching at the basic school, the folks at the FBI, as best I could tell, really didn’t have a standard uniform for field training or fire-arms training. Low and behold, as I understand the story, there was an FBI agent from the west-coast, who married somebody who was a customer service woman working at Royal Robbins. That FBI agent got transferred to the FBI Academy as an instructor, which would have been in the early 90s. At that point, he said, “Hey, here’s a great looking rock-climbing pant called the 5.11 Pant. Why don’t we try it out?” In the early 90s, the firearms training unit at the FBI started wearing the 5.11 pant. This was long before there was a 5.11 Tactical company.
Low and behold, that pant performed well. Durable, heavy, cotton canvas stuck. It ended up becoming the instructor’s pant. Ultimately, the students started wearing the pant, and that’s when it started this kind-of buzz inside the law enforcement community. First, in the U. S., and then outside the U. S. that this was the law enforcement training pant.
Hence, 5.11 became the creator of the original tactical pant by virtue of being with federal law enforcement, specifically the FBI, more than 20 years ago.
How has 5.11 innovated to remain on top of the tactical apparel industry?
I became CEO of 5.11 Tactical 3 years ago. At that point we had an implied mission around innovation, but through a collaborative effort with senior leaders and product developers inside of the company, as well as people in sales and operation, we updated our company mission statement. Today, the company mission statement is very clear. It’s all about innovation. We use it in the first-person of the collective “we.” We are innovators who create purpose-built gear for the most demanding missions. The way we continued to move forward with innovation was simply asking end-users, law enforcement, military, fire, EMS, “What problems do you have that have not been addressed properly?” In many cases they said, “We want something different in our tactical pant. We love the original tactical pant, we love the poly-cotton tac- pro-pant, but we want more out of the pant.”
What we say is, “Bring us your problem set. Bring us what’s not working. Let us build a purpose built product. Let us build a tool to solve that problem.” So it’s really end-user feedback, defining a problem set, that sets up a roadmap for innovation. Obviously, we have to select which problems we want to solve, but it all starts with basic gear like pants, shirts, boots, backpacks, outerwear and accessories.
Walk us through that innovation story as it applies to, say the Stryke pant?
I think the key point when we look at innovation is, we believe, we’re never afraid to cannibalize an existing product out there. Again, 3 years ago, as I joined the company and started working with our president, Francisco Morales, a $49 tactical pant, either the 5.11 tactical pant or the taclite pro, that was the premium tactical pant in the marketplace, top performer. It’s a great product, whether it’s in cotton or poly-cotton. People are asking for more, but everybody told us, you can’t charge more than $49, because $49 is already a really high price point. What people were looking for was lighter, faster, something that gave them more mobility, more comfort, more function, in terms of where to put a magazine, where to put a cell-phone, particularly a larger cell phone. So we knew we needed more pockets, we needed different pocket shapes, we needed different material, and we didn’t want anything with lycra in it.
Almost every stretch product out there has got lycra, which is effectively like a rubber band. Sooner or later, that rubber band’s going to fatigue and break. We thought, “What about creating some sort of a material that has a mechanical stretch?” In other words, there’s no rubber, there’s no lycra in it. It’s not only a little more masculine, but it’s also something that isn’t going to fatigue or wear out. With a mill, we patented a processed grade, a mechanical stretch that became the foundation of the Stryke pant. We also developed a more low-profile pocket with a different shape. While it wasn’t intended to be a uniform pant, it’s really more covert-casual CCW pant, it’s now actually being adopted as the uniform in law enforcement. So, we’re pretty excited about that. The key point is, we weren’t afraid to run the risk of cannibalizing our existing best-selling pants and going to a higher price-point if we could deliver value with better functionality, better mobility.
How is 5.11 innovating to create products that would appeal to anyone in the civilian space where the tactical function is not just from a concealed-carry holder but could apply to someone who just has a rigorous day in general? How is 5.11 reaching out to broader markets to show the benefits of tactical apparel for anyone?
Well, when you talk to the broader consumer market space, tactical generally means “the mind-set of being prepared.” That converts to, or translates to, having the right gear to do your job and be ready for the unexpected. Hence, the notion of “Always Be Ready.” We believe that our tactical product’s designed for the most demanding missions with police, fire, military, apply to a tradesman, apply to a sports enthusiast, apply to a hunter, or a sport shooter, broadly. We allow you to have a look that can be overtly tactical, where you might wear the Stryke pants with a tactical shirt, where it clearly is something built to take to the range, or we allow you to be prepared and not look like you’re an operator, because you can be in a covert casual shirt, and you could be in the Ridgeline, or Cirrus pant that has the same great functionality of the Stryke pant, but doesn’t have the overt cargo pockets on the thigh.
We, therefore, allow you to build your uniform, if you will, for a non-uniform environment.
How is 5.11 catering to the concealed carry consumer?
I think the best way to think about it is, a lot of the feedback we get is from law enforcement operators, military operators, who have to operate in a low-visibility environment. It might be a detective. They may be somebody OCONUS overseas, and they can’t appear to be carrying a weapon, whether that weapon is a pistol or a knife. Occasionally it might be a rifle, and those are a little bit harder to hide.
We’re building our apparel products as tool sets to conceal whatever tools/weapons you happen to be carrying, and concealed carry for the consumer, as well as the law enforcement professional or military operator, is a huge part of our business. Virtually everything we’re building now, we look at all the different ways one might carry a weapon on one’s body, particularly a pistol.
Where is 5.11 going? What’s the future for this brand? There’s obviously been huge product launches and developments over the last few years, but what’s the next step?
Innovation for 5.11 always starts with the defined problem set from an operator. We continue to have product development meetings where we meet with operators and say, “Bring us your problems.” Then we start a multi-year development process to come up with unique solutions to those problems.
As we speak, we have a number of patent-pending innovations that will make life, we think, more interesting, safer, and more effective for those operators and law enforcement, and military, even fire and EMS. We’re going to come up with things that people haven’t seen before that deliver with great value and great functionality to the end user, whether the end user is a professional on the job, or that end user is somebody who’s more of the enthusiast who’s a sport shooter, hunter, or outdoors person in general.
The future is all about innovation for 5.11. It’s not innovation that comes from a random focus group. It’s innovation that comes from operators saying, “I’ve got this problem, and no one has solved it before.”
Who is 5.11? How would you describe the mindset?
Our operator, be they a man or a woman, they are always preparing for the unexpected. They’re always working to be ready. Because they’re always working to be ready, they’re quietly confident. They’re not somebody who needs a big logo on their chest. They don’t need the big Superman “S”. They don’t want that. They don’t want to be the one picked out of the crowd. They’re not looking to hide, but they’re confident, and they’re not pounding their chests saying, “Look at me.” But they’re there, and they’re there on a mission, they’re there with a purpose, they want to make a difference.
As a result, they’re the one who won’t start the fight. They won’t cause a commotion, but if something goes wrong, they’re going to step in and address the problem. That’s the mindset of 5.11. You don’t need to pound your chest, you don’t need to brag. You’re always working to get better. I’d like to think everybody in the 5.11 Tactical organization operates with that kind of an ethos. We’re looking to serve those end-users. We’re quietly confident. We’re not going to brag. We’re not going to pound our chests. We’re not going to have the big logo front and center, but we’re going to keep working to get better.
That 5.11 person, that male or female operator, they’re the one you want with you in your foxhole. You want them as a co-pilot. You want them in the stack with you, because you know they won’t let you down. They’ll be there when you need them. Why? Because they’re ready. They’ve been training. Things may never happen to put them in extreme danger, but they’re ready for that scenario.