BEL AIR, Md. — In the 10 years Dale Turner has been building houses, he has bought thousands of dollars worth of convenient, go-anywhere battery-powered saws, screwdrivers and drills. But if he needed a new cordless tool tomorrow, he would not buy a Black & Decker.
"In my opinion they are just handyman's specials," said the construction supervisor for Landmark Homes. "They don't have the power and they don't seem to hold up" for professional purposes.
Black & Decker Corp. has become the nation's biggest producer of power tools by selling inexpensive goods to homeowners--at a cost of nearly destroying its image with many professional tool users.
But now the $4-billion hardware giant, based in Towson, Md., is making a bid to win back long-alienated carpenters, repairmen and construction workers.
The key to the strategy is a just-released ThunderVolt tool line.
The key to ThunderVolt is a nylon belt pack, similar in appearance to a carpenter's belt, that holds a 24-volt, quickly rechargeable battery.
The cord attached to the 7-pound battery pack hooks up to any of what will eventually be a dozen new cordless tools, including screwdrivers, hammer drills, shears and, sometime in the future, power saws. The battery pack alone retails for $343, and tools range from $200 to $300 apiece.
Though battery-powered tools are nothing new, ThunderVolt is the first attempt to offer enough power to nearly match corded tools in strength. And its battery can be recharged in one hour.
Until now, it has been necessary, but inconvenient and dangerous, to have long extension cords dragging across floors of job sites so workers can use industrial-strength power drills, saws and other tools, said Howard Hunt, director of the Associated General Contractors of Maryland.
Cordless power tools strong enough to drill holes in concrete, for example, "could be absolutely revolutionary," he said.
That is what B&D executives are hoping people in the building trades will say around the country.
Though Black & Decker has had a line of industrial tools and has purported to sell tradesmen's tools for many years, B&D executives concede that they had lost many professional users.
To show professionals that B&D is serious about winning back business, the company is marketing ThunderVolt only through specially selected professional tool distributors who call on job sites and construction companies.
"Black & Decker left that portion of the market open," and loss of the tradesmen's market hurt the company, said Don Elser, vice president of research for the hardware conglomerate. "You have to have a professional market to develop new products."
Also, industry investment analysts familiar with the tool industry said B&D needs to win back professional users to complete a turnaround of its image and finances.
Though Black & Decker is well diversified, the new focus on professional markets "is quite important," said Greg Nejmeh, an industry analyst for Shearson Lehman Hutton.
"We are in a climate in which consumer spending is languishing. We have more two-income households, and people generally have less free time," which means contractor sales are likely to grow faster than consumer sales, Nejmeh said.
"And you have to win the tradesmen for a quality image," he said.
But those familiar with the construction trades interviewed recently said that though the new strategy is admirable, Black & Decker will probably have difficulty in the near term.
Besides image, B&D must fight an economy fueling the general reluctance of builders and workers to pay several hundred dollars for a cordless tool.
Steve Bonderoff, sales manager for Brock Tool Co. of Maryland, said that his company has sold just one or two ThunderVolts in the month the product has been on the market and that a lot of contractor and tradesmen customers have bought inexpensive Black & Decker tools only to have them break.
"For a guy who's going to use a drill to make one little hole once a week, it will last you forever," he said. "But if you are going to use it eight hours a day, you shouldn't use a $20 tool.
"Black & Decker makes some superior tools," but "a lot of contractors really believe Black & Decker is a piece-of-junk line," he said.
"I have gone with Black & Decker tools," Bonderoff said, "put them in their hands and they'll admit it is a better tool, but they still won't buy it because it's got a Black & Decker name on it. . . . They are very closed-minded."
But even open-minded potential customers may not be in the market for new tools these days. A foreman at the Finglass Construction Co. said he thinks the "power pack would be handy," but he will not be able to risk $700 on a new tool for quite a while.
Commercial building business has dried up for Finglass, he said: "We've cut down on a lot of stuff. . . . We've got power equipment just laying here" as the company waits for work.