Anyone who’s visited McIntire Plaza is familiar with its eclecticism. The businesses include Circa—in itself, a testament to variety—a Brazilian jiu-jitsu center, a tiny black-box theater company, and a furniture showroom enigmatically named Poem.
Even those who frequent the plaza, though, might not know about Diamondback Toolbelts. Tucked into the far end of Harris Street, the warehouse misses the majority of the traffic and doesn’t have a sign. But despite its quiet presence in Charlottesville, Diamondback has spent the last four years bursting into international relevance as a highly renowned upscale toolbelt company.
CEO Connor Crook is largely to thank for this success—although in conversation, he doesn’t show any of the smugness one might expect from the accomplishment. On the Friday afternoon when Crook meets for an interview, he’s both easygoing and a bit hyper, exuding a friendly energy that shines from underneath his Diamondback-stamped face mask. The warehouse is nearly empty—more people were there earlier, Crook explains, fulfilling international orders—but his liveliness fills the conference room, where he sits at a table littered with swatches of test fabrics for his belts.
Crook says communication skills come from the decade-plus of law he practiced before Diamondback—a “miserable experience,” he claims. “I never felt comfortable in the skin of a lawyer.” Crook missed working creatively with his hands, something he had many opportunities to do as a boy at his grandfather’s construction company. “I grew up around this.” When his longtime friend Michael Williams contacted him about buying a toolbelt company, Crook didn’t hesitate to change careers.
They’d discovered Diamondback Toolbelts—an Alaska-based company run out of a garage. There wasn’t much in the way of products, as each belt was made on demand and by hand, but there was a passionate client base on Facebook that claimed the belts “were just the greatest things in the world.” Crook purchased an original Diamondback from one such happy customer to get a feel for the product and immediately knew it was something special.
Crook still has this belt—a faded blue, battered, but sturdy relic—hanging on a metal rack in the conference room alongside several others he’s sourced from Facebook. “Our museum pieces,” he calls them proudly. After purchasing the company with Williams in 2016, Crook made improvements to the belts, but even these earlier iterations of Diamondbacks are impressively crafted. Both finely detailed and extremely heavy-duty, they look like military-grade products—and in fact, several of the fabrics on the conference table are made of Kevlar or Dyneema, the sort of thing that typically belongs in a bulletproof vest.
Growth didn’t come immediately. Crook says they “got their footing” in 2017, and in 2018 he bought out Williams, a process that took most of the year, but in 2019 the company seriously expanded. Crook was able to increase his hiring, a move that included bumping up part-time employee Damani Harrison to head of sales, marketing, and customer service.
It’s very likely that those who don’t know Harrison in a Diamondback context have interacted with him elsewhere in Charlottesville. During his time living in the city, he’s been a musician, coffee shop manager, substitute teacher, reporter, activist, and soccer coach—“and that’s just scratching the surface,” he says, adding, “I haven’t slept in 20 fucking years.”
Harrison started off in 2018 doing “grunt work,” but soon enough was running Diamondback’s Instagram account, which Crook calls “the luckiest thing in the world,” and today has more than 60,000 followers. If that popularity seems unusual for a high-end toolbelt company, Crook and Harrison were surprised too. Then they realized there was a “burgeoning community on Instagram that was really into fine craftsmanship,” says Crook.
Harrison quickly learned to cater to that community, tinkering with Instagram’s algorithm to find international clients. “One weekend, I decided that I was gonna teach myself Korean hashtags. So I stayed up for like 48 hours.” With the aid of Google Translate, Harrison successfully added foreign- language hashtags to Diamondback’s posts and discovered the Instagram Korean trades community—niche but also, as it turned out, lucrative. Through Harrison’s experiment, Diamondback gained the business of a Korean client, today its second-largest customer.
Crook partially attributes international sales to Diamondback’s lucrative 2020, his company’s best year to date. And even in America, business has been thriving, despite the pandemic. “Our customer base is essential workers,” he explains. “They stopped working for maybe two weeks.”
But the root of Diamondback’s success in Crook’s eyes, the reason it will continue to be many tradespeople’s brand of choice, is a mutual respect between company and client. “The people that we sell to have been a neglected group. A large part of my brand is building respect around what they do.”
Both Crook and Harrison mentioned American education’s disregard for skilled labor. As a substitute, Harrison saw how the system “failed so many kids who would’ve benefited being exposed to the trades way earlier.” His work for Diamondback, he says, is meant to normalize and destigmatize the industry, to help give tradespeople their deserved esteem.
“There are a lot of people who are looking for respect within the industry,” Crook agrees. “If you put the effort into understanding your customer and treating them as a human being, it doesn’t matter what the economy does…the sky’s the limit.”