Reilly Brennan | July 6, 2022

The Nancy Meyers Leaf Blower Edition

On lawns, power, and lithium-ion

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Milwaukee Electric Tools 2724-21HD M18 Fuel Blower Kit (120 Mph)
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A leaf blower showcased by Hollywood filmmaker Nancy Meyers in a photograph, highlighting the global power tool market.

Reilly Brennan (RPB) is an investor at Trucks Venture Capital and author of the widely-followed Future of Transportation newsletter. Past contributions to WITI include the Postal Truck Edition and the Walking Meeting Edition

Reilly here. When Hollywood filmmaker Nancy Meyers opened up her Los Angeles residence for a recent photo shoot with Architectural Digest, no artificial light regulated our views of the home’s 10-foot drapes, pool house, and abundant wicker seating. Residuals from the film business do, in fact, support ​​wide expanses of de Le Cuona linens and kitchens suitable for a Diane Keaton dinner party. 

The most winsome of all was not an interior shot, but a single photograph of Ms. Meyers on the lawn, one-handing a Milwaukee M18 leaf blower, model No. 2724, her other hand casually tucked into her shirt dress. Within this photograph, she is doing more than directing the fate of 37 Brentwood leaves; she offers a tidy summary of the global power tool market.

Miles Dumont voice: Legend has it, when the Milwaukee M18 blows, anything can happen.

Why is this interesting?

The modern consumer power tool industry is both propelled and protected by the magical, efficient lithium battery.

Power tools like your standard household drill have around 100 years of history. Battery-powered (cordless) models emerged only in the 1960s, although most were either too heavy or underpowered to beat corded equivalents for tough, continuous work. The best tools in your grandparent’s workshop were likely corded, housed in an aluminum case, and often stamped with the Craftsman logo.

After some false starts with less efficient battery chemistries like NiCad, everything changed in 2005 when the Milwaukee brand introduced lithium-ion batteries in a line of power tools. These packs were small and powerful (NiCads, in contrast, had hit a performance wall due to their weight, and increasing their running time and power only made them heavier). A world without lithium-ion packs forces us to consider Nancy Meyers with both hands on her leaf blower. Like Stallone holding his machine gun in the final battle scene of Rambo.

Lithium-ion is expensive, however. Those high costs necessitated battery interchangeability as brands realized that consumers would be unlikely to pay for packs for each device. The secondary effect of that was game-changing: the high cost of batteries breeds a natural lock-in habit with consumers. Once you’ve bought one Milwaukee leaf blower with an expensive lithium-ion pack, you’ll likely buy from Milwaukee again if you need a drill, sander, grinder, or any of the other 200 tools that run on its M18 system. Few customer retention strategies are more potent than the battery platform commitment you make to a power tool company. 

Makita’s line of 18V LXT battery packs can fit a mind-boggling portfolio of 300 different products. The message is clear: you never have to leave us.

Power tool companies have become battery-moated customer retention businesses. And since larger manufacturers can buy cells at scale, there’s been an all-out race to consolidate power tool brands under massive holding companies, lock up supply contracts, and go big. 

Just 18 megabrands control over 90% percent of the global power tools market. Of those, four companies control 48% of all sales. In the future, more consolidation is expected. 

Nancy Meyers might not realize that she holds in her hand the scale purchasing power of Hong Kong-based TTI, corporate brethren of Ryobi, Oreck, and Dirt Devil. But maybe Nancy can afford to just buy lithium-ion packs for whatever she wants. You’re supposed to be the leading lady in your own life, for God’s sake. (RPB)

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Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Reilly (RPB) 

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