Few Rhode Island companies can boast of an internationally recognized brand name
like that of American Tourister in Warren, R.I. Television viewers, especially, might
remember the famous gorilla jumping up and down on a piece of American Tourister luggage,
and throwing it against the bars of its cage, without being able to damage it.
American Tourister is a classic success story. Its founder was Sol Koffler, an ambitious immigrant from Poland with only a grammar school education. Koffler came to America full of drive. In his earlier years in this country, he earned money by working two and three jobs simultaneously. He also earned money by prizefighting and had about 15 professional matches to his credit when he left the ring.
In 1932, Koffler founded the American Luggage Works in Warren. The company quickly established a reputation by producing quality luggage at a reasonable price. It was also an innovator, becoming the first to manufacture molded luggage.
In 1938, the company introduced a new line of innovative luggage called American Tourister, which formed the basis of the company's name when it was changed in 1978.
Koffler quickly became known as an innovator. During the 1930s he took machinery
then being used to make plywood radio cases and adapted it to make more durable luggage.
In the 1940s, he introduced all-vinyl luggage and the first molded plastic luggage.
In the 1950s, he improved the molded plastic luggage manufacturing process to create a nearly indestructible, low-cost product. As time went on, the company introduced padded handles, stronger locks and an expanded line of colors.
Company innovations continued through the '90s when American Tourister won the Industrial Designers Society of America award for its EasyTurn wheel handling system.
Koffler turned to national advertising in 1945 when he committed $12,000 for the
company's first-ever campaign. That campaign helped established American Tourister with a
In the 1950s and 1960s, the company used testimonials on its products' durability in its campaign but it wasn't until the 1970s that American Tourister established a standard for national recognizability. The advertising agency Doyle, Dane, Bernback of Chicago created the first American Tourister gorilla in TV and print ads, taking durability communication to another level. That campaign won the highly coveted 1981 Clio Award for creativity and imagination and subsequently was voted into the Clio Hall of Fame.
As the company became increasingly successful, Sol Koffler turned to charity
work and became one of the Rhode Island's best-known philanthropists, giving to schools,
colleges, hospitals and other worthy causes. A medical building at Brown University and
the technology building at Bryant College are named after him. He also donated to Miriam
Hospital, Providence Hebrew Day School and the R.I. Jewish Home for the Aged.
Among the many honors bestowed on him were honorary doctorate of science degrees in business administration from Bryant College Providence College and Roger Williams University. Koffler passed away in 1993 in a nursing home in Florida at the age of 86, but his name undoubtedly will be a piece of the Rhode Island landscape for many years to come.
In 1978, Hillenbrand Industries, Inc., an Indiana-based conglomerate, purchased
American Luggage Works and renamed it American Tourister. In 1993, the company was sold
again, this time to Astrum International Corp. of New York, joining Astrum's other world
recognized products lines of Samsonite, Botany 500 and Culligan water products.
In 1995, Astrum separated its business operations into two independent companies -- Samsonite Corp. and Culligan Water Technologies. Today, Samsonite is the country's leading manufacturer in terms of dollar revenues, but American Tourister remains the number one manufacturer in terms of unit sales. The target audiences are very different, according to John Simon, vice president of sales. Samsonite is targeted to the business traveler, while American Tourister products are aimed at the serious leisure traveler.
While American Tourister manufacturing operations have been relocated to other
states, world headquarters remains in Warren. It is here that products are designed,
developed and marketed, and that the retail sales staff and company officers are located.
In addition, the Warren office contains a factory outlet which offers products from other companies, as well as its own, to the retail customer.
Factory outlet stores have become one of the company's stronger growth areas. So far, more than 100 factory outlets have been opened, with more on the line. "The future looks very bright for retail operations," says Mark Korros, senior vice president of retail.
Although American Tourister today is very different from the American Luggage Works that Sol Koffler ran in the early 1930s -- with a parent company and an internationally recognized brand name -- the headquarters is likely to remain in Warren, where company executives can run its far-flung operations, for many years.