Fanno Saw Works, a 43-year TCIA Corporate Member company based in Chico, California, is celebrating its 100th year in business in 2020. A century! Ten decades! Fanno Saw has joined the ranks of other U.S.-based centenarian businesses including Macy’s, King Arthur Flour and Heinz.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), data has shown that approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more. These statistics have been fairly stable since the 1990s. What about those companies founded before the ’90s that have made it to 100 – which factors contributed to their long-term success?
Third-generation owner Robb Fanno might tell you that innovation and a reputation for quality are key.
How it all began
Fanno’s grandfather, Asa Augustus Fanno (A.A.), started designing saws prior to 1920. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Fanno’s grandfather was trained in multiple fields – first logging, then shipbuilding and then paddleboats, which took him down to Chico, an agricultural town where he eventually settled.
When he got to Chico in about 1910, A.A. opened a dry goods store, then left the business and bought an orchard. As a result of his training, A.A. had fine-tuned his carpentry and woodworking skills and knew a lot about working with tools. A.A. had to prune the trees every season to generate fruit growth – and he got tired of climbing into the tree and using ineffective equipment. So, after some trial and error, he created the industry’s first pole saw with a curved blade. The blade’s curve allowed the user to maximize the cutting effectiveness of the downward stroke, or pull, of the tool, according to the company’s website.
He had relatives in Washington and Oregon who were interested in purchasing his design. “What A.A. did doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that first saw revolutionized how people pruned,” says Robb Fanno. Next came a handsaw, and then a folding saw. A business was born.
Soon enough, the Fanno name had become a proprietary eponym for handsaws, according to Robb Fanno. Much like when people use the word “Kleenex” instead of tissue or “Band-Aid” instead of adhesive bandage, when people needed their pruning saw, they said, “Hand me my Fanno.”
During World War II, agriculture was vital to support soldiers, and Fanno Saw experienced a period of growth, employing 40 to 50 workers to produce saws. When A.A. suffered a heart attack in the early 1940s, his son, Carl, started spending more time in the family business. Carl had worked for a period of time in the Bay Area, and was not interested in taking over Fanno Saw. He returned to Chico to work as a pilot trainer during WWII and eventually bought the business from his father in 1949, the same year his son, Robb, was born.
Robb Fanno started working in the family business at around the age of 8. “The memory is so vivid, like it was yesterday,” says Fanno. “I would go in the back room because I had a job decaling handles. We used water-sensitive decals that you had to immerse in water to activate the glue on the back of the decal and mount it on the surface, then let it dry. I got a penny apiece.” Later on, Fanno Saw switched to the wood-burned logo you see today.
A crash course in saw making
Until about WWII, Fanno Saw was still making saws almost entirely by hand. The process began with a pattern outline of a saw blade marked on steel. A person would hand sheer and hand cut the shape from the pattern and then grind the shape smooth. Next, a hammer and hand punch were used to punch out teeth. Then, a foot-driven set machine would hammer the teeth down. Finally, the saw was hand filed to sharpen it.
Oddly enough, even after 100 years, the process hasn’t changed much. However, technology has replaced humans, much like many other manufactured products. After WWII, in-house equipment was modified to help with production, including a press to cut the shape and a machine for automatic tooth notching. The one part of the process that remains unchanged 100 years later is sharpening the teeth – it’s still done by hand.
Fanno Saw offers a resharpening service that, like the initial sharpening, is done entirely by hand. “Fanno Saw is the only company I know of that hand grinds blades,” Robb Fanno says. According to the Fanno Saw website, their specialized tooth design and the heel of the tooth where it forms an open mouth give the saw a faster cut that doesn’t bind in green wood and allows it to stay sharp longer in hardwoods.
Additionally, the blade’s curved edge is designed to enable the cutting teeth to work at their optimum, maximizing cutting effectiveness. This curved edge has been copied by competitors. “The blades could have been patented, but they weren’t,” says Fanno. “The theory was that the idea wasn’t unique enough.”
Finally, Fanno believes that the aesthetics of wood and metal are an important differentiator amid a sea of plastic available on the market today. “Craftsmen always made tools with wood, and maintaining that tradition today contributes to the history and sense of quality,” says Fanno. Many of Fanno Saw’s U.S.-manufactured products feature wooden handles, while Japanese-sourced blades and many non-wood products are produced under the Fanno International branch.
Fanno has sourced wood from the same supplier since 1965. Fanno Saw used to have its own wood shop, but that job got too big and was eventually contracted out. Since 1970, there have only been four handle makers in the United States. In 2018, Fanno lost its main handle maker, located in Paradise, Calif., when the company shut down its business due to devastating consequences of the Camp Fire. It took five months to find a new handle maker.
Who uses Fanno?
According to the Fanno Saw website, “Since its beginning, Fanno Saw Works has been supplying arborists, orchardists, nurseries, municipalities, public utilities companies, forest service agencies, home gardeners, hobbyists and many others with the finest pruning saws.” Clients have included the Western Electric Company and the Davey Tree Expert Company.
When it comes to development, there are no official focus groups. “We just reach out to people who know what they are doing in their line of work and ask for their input. Sometimes they come to us first,” says Fanno. For example, when Pacific Gas asked for a saw that would serve certain purposes, the No. 7 was born, a carpenter saw that could cut roots as well as rough lumber.
Fanno Saw’s tools have been used in unique places and ways. For example, when asked, “What type of saw would you put into a survival pack for someone working on the Alaskan gas pipeline?” Fanno Saw developed a tool. Additionally, an outdoors company from the Pacific Northwest was known to promote the use of Fanno saws to cut blocks of ice.
The handsaw market
Fanno has observed two key changes in the market, and both are due to technology. “The movement of technology for a tree climber has gone nuts over the last 23 years,” says Fanno. “This includes innovation in helmets, rigging, carabiners, cabling, saddles and, most important to the handsaw business, the portable chain saw.” Where gas-powered chain saws used to be large and heavy, their new electric counterparts are quite light and are capable of cutting the larger 8- to 12-inch limbs. The 1960s were a turning point in the transition from handsaws to powered saws.
The second technological advance in the industry was the internet. “Many old-time distributors with their solo sales guy didn’t move with the internet and eventually ended up closing shop,” says Fanno. Marketing changed when the internet became widely used and even more so with a heavy reliance on social media to promote products, he says.
Fanno Saw is fortunate to benefit from word-of-mouth, trade shows and advertising in key industries. “What we’ve been doing is relying on our reputation for quality,” says Fanno. “The biggest hindrance has been not having a large social-media presence or getting more involved with the industries where we sell.” Fanno observes that there are other opportunities and industries where more effort could be spent, but with such a small team, it can be difficult to find the resources and time to attend more than a handful of shows each year.
Fanno Saw has benefitted from great relationships in arboriculture, due in part to being a TCIA Corporate Member. “TCIA staff has always been helpful with Associate Members (now called Corporate Members),” says Fanno. “They have a commercial understanding of safety, management practices and marketing, so they have a better idea of what the Associate Members need to do to interact with their customer base. Trade shows are important, and TCI EXPO specifically – they know what vendors need to do to connect with prospects on the floor.”
When history comes back …
Part of the fun of being a 100-year-old company is when history shows up in unexpected ways. When asked, “Has anyone brought back a 100-year-old saw and asked for their money back or for a replacement?” Fanno shares two fun anecdotes.
“A local person brought in a saw 10 years ago – we looked at it together. It was a No. 4. It had hardly been used, it was almost pristine and clearly had been stored inside. It had never been re-sharpened, and it was still sharp,” says Fanno. “We can identify saws based on the hardware used, the finish and the markings on the handle. This was a hand-cut blade using fasteners that were square nuts partially embedded into the handle. It was a pre-war piece, and I guessed it was from about 1935. ‘Is this thing worth sharpening?’ the customer asked. ‘Yeah – but I’ll give you a new one if you let me keep this one,’ I said. I made the trade and still have that saw today.”
“Another customer came in and asked, ‘Got a curved saw price list?’ I responded yes. He said, ‘My price list here says I can get a curved saw for $2.’ His price list was from 1941! It was in pristine condition, and it was gorgeous,” says Fanno. “I had never seen the list before, but I recalled seeing all of the original die blocks that were used for the artwork for printing that particular price list. The customer was kind enough to let me keep the price list. I got it custom framed with the blocks, and it hangs in my office today.”
Fanno Saw Works today
“Ego might be what gets me excited about going to work. When you see that for 100 years people have used Fanno products, it means something,” says Fanno. “Maybe that’s why I got into the business after my dad. I felt an allegiance to the Fanno name to keep it going, because people like good-quality tools.”
Today, Fanno Saw Works is still located at the original Chico plant and is a team of seven people, with no other Fanno family members involved.
When asked what’s next for Fanno Saw and if the business will see another 25 years, Fanno says, “I don’t see why not. I think Fanno has a lot to offer. I think our designs and our skills have a longevity to them. Most businesses now that attract young people are digital in nature. I don’t think these same people like the idea of getting their hands dirty. Working with metal isn’t for everybody, but somebody will do it.”
Emily W. Duane is a freelance writer specializing in business and marketing topics for the outdoor trades and recreation industries. Her background is in non-profit trade associations, corporate retail and professional services firms. She currently is based in Denver, Colorado.