On The Level: Keson and SOLA: Made in America: Bringing Innovation into a Mature Market

Words: Todd Fredrick

Jude Nosek

My grandfather, Keson’s founder Roy Nosek, told me a story about perspective when I was a boy. It has stuck with me over the years. I am now North of 50, probably close to the age he was when he told me. I have told this story to my children and sometimes to others. I have heard a similar tale about many builders, architects, even other professions, so I am certain it’s an old story and has been co-opted by many to illustrate a simple truth: how you choose to see what you do is important. This is close to how I heard it first:

When SOLA came to Keson in 2017 with the idea of introducing the SOLA offering of levels into the North American market, many on Team Keson were very excited. I think I was the only hesitant member of that team. Keson had done a rebranding campaign in 2010 and 2011. In 2013 and 2014, we had the opportunity to expand our short tape measure (tapes measure under 40 feet), offering from about 24 products to about 60 tapes in 5 different styles (we are now at 70+). In 2015 we challenged redesigning our chalk line reels and repackaging our chalk offering to better align with emerging industry standards. This took us the better part of two years. In 2017, I was very interested in tackling a tune-up of a key product family for us, namely measuring wheels. So, I was resistant when the possibility of collaboration for levels came our way by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic folks at SOLA.

Image caption: SOLA FOCUS vials

The spirit and screeding levels options in North America had not changed very much for decades. SOLA Measuring Tools, a 70-year manufacturer of levels, introduced innovations to level markets in Europe and worldwide. And they were having incredible success. Most notable among the features of the SOLA levels is the SOLA FOCUS vial technology. The FOCUS vial changes the way builders look at levels. Compared with standard ring vials, FOCUS vials show a considerably higher contrast. This patented technology gives users a better, faster, and more accurate reading, even from a distance or in a low-light setting. 

The SOLA team was very persuasive, extremely engaging, and the products were fantastic. Over the next 18 months, as we worked together on exploring this option and refining a marketing strategy, I realized that my resistance was unnecessary. After a lot of market research, A lot of market research convinced us that it was possible and a great idea. But a lot would have to change for Keson. We did not want to be merely a reseller for SOLA into the North American market. We had sold levels in the past and had only mild success. The main issue was that levels were not among our core offerings. 

At the time, our core consisted of: 

1. our founding product line, tape measures (long and short, steel and fiberglass), 

2. measuring wheels (made at Keson in Aurora), and 

3. chalk and chalk line reels (also made at Keson).  

For Keson to have success with levels, we would need to commit to a change. We would have to make levels the fourth pillar of our core offering. That is just what we did. 

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Image caption: Aaron Nosek (left), President of Keson and Wolfgang Scheyer (right), SOLA’s CEO, introduces their newest level, featuring SOLA’s FOCUS Vials. 

So, in 2018 the Nosek and Scheyer families joined together to form a new company, Keson LLC. Keson and SOLA are both family-owned, third-generation businesses. The grandsons of the company founders lead both. SOLA started in 1949 with a leveling tool invented on the roof of the Scheyer family home in Goetzis, Austria.  Keson started in 1968 in the basement of the Nosek family home in Berwyn, Illinois.  Both companies are leaders in measuring and marking tools, offer complementary product lines, and share similar values with a combined 120 years of market experience. The Keson and SOLA alliance built upon Keson’s U.S. manufacturing, existing distribution network, and strong relationships by adding SOLA’s European manufacturing expertise, precision engineering, and industry-leading technology.

In 2019, we launched a two-brand strategy that delivers superior durability, unmatched accuracy, and a better user experience:

The SOLA branded levels are at the high-end of the market and are the best-of-the-best, just as SOLA levels have been in Europe and around the world for the last 70 years.

The Keson branded levels are positioned as the best of the mid-tier levels, backed by SOLA technology and the reputation Keson has built over the last 50 years.

Keson LLC introduced more than 60 different level products under the SOLA and Keson brands. All the levels are built at one of SOLA’s two European manufacturing facilities in either Austria or Hungary. 

The last three years have exceeded our expectations despite some very unique global challenges.  With limited trade shows, customer calls, end-user visits, and even restricted customer access to distributors’ showrooms, getting the products in front of customers has been no easy task. Once we get the levels into their hands, however, end-users immediately see and feel the value of these high-precision tools and word-of-mouth is enthusiastic and positive.

Image Caption: The SOLA Measures app enables the use of additional smart functions such as remote reading and remote control.

The need to document, record, and share information quickly drives our decisions to bring it to distributors. The market needs tools that work consistently and reliably. With younger users more readily adopting technology, we know we need to continue to supply products that meet those expectations, too. Our 2021 introduction of Bluetooth® enabled digital levels, the coming addition of mason protective pads for box-beam levels that masons prefer, and expansion of our offering to include some products that are new to the US market (like the SOLA pencil offering, which goes beyond just carpenter pencils to include tools designed to write on stone, glass, metal and many other surfaces), are adding to the line. 

Image Caption: Full Line of SOLA pencils now available in the USA

Our European partners are intimately involved in our entire product and marketing strategy for North America, bringing creativity, enthusiasm, and business acumen to our planning sessions. Increased information about global resources and markets has brought new solutions to us. The partnership has increased our in-house knowledge and capabilities.  

Alliances with organizations, especially the MCAA, are critical to our success. This MCAA partnership enables us to learn more directly from builders, providing greater access, engagement, and richer relationships. We have learned a lot in the last couple of years and look forward to learning and sharing more. It’s already exciting and rewarding. We are pretty fired up, and we are just getting started!

About Keson LLC: Keson is a third-generation, family-owned company founded in 1968 in the basement of the Nosek family home in Berwyn, Illinois. Now headquartered in Aurora, Illinois, Keson is well known for providing reliable, innovative, and easy-to-use measuring and marking products to professional tradespeople who are passionate about their work. They believe outstanding service is just as important as outstanding products. Find out more at the Keson website, keson.com.

About SOLA-Messwerkzeuge GmbH: For 70 years, the brand SOLA has meant high precision measuring and marking tools. As market leader in premium spirit levels, the Austrian company manufactures various products, including screeding levels, folding rules, long and short tapes, squares, marking products, laser distance meters, and a customized laser program. SOLA Measuring Tools is globally present in 70 countries around the world. 75% of all products are manufactured in Goetzis, Austria, where the headquarters and production facility are located. Find out more at sola.us. 

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