Staying on Target
Savage Arms Continues a Tradition of Entrepreneurship, InnovationAl Kasper says there are three business fundamentals that have made 119-year old Savage Arms, the world’s largest manufacturer of hunting rifles and shotguns, so successful since its well-documented recovery from Chapter 11 bankruptcy two decades ago.
The first is a dedicated and passionate leadership team, one that has been hand-picked over the past 20 years. The second is a focus on lean manufacturing that was decidedly missing for most of the ’70s and ’80s, one of the main reasons for the company’s financial turmoil. And the third is a practice of innovative product development, enabled by a company-wide philosophy of not only listening to customers and industry experts, but also responding proactively to what they’re saying.
Kasper — who took the helm as president and CEO after ATK, an aerospace, defense, and commercial-products company, completed its acquisition of Savage in June — said those traits were instilled by his predecessor, Ronald Coburn, who is credited with rescuing the company from bankruptcy.
And today, they are taking Savage to the top of a highly competitive shooting-arms industry, with more than $200 million in annual sales, said Kasper, adding that the lessons learned then still apply today.
“Ron, himself, went out and sold,” recalled Kasper, who joined Savage 1996 as Coburn was staging the comeback. “Coming out of bankruptcy, the company didn’t have a lot of resources, so he literally went customer to customer — Wal-Mart, Kmart, and others — and was successful getting our rifles into those stores at the time.”
The efforts brought much-needed revenue to the company and gave it the time and breathing room to create a culture defined by innovation and entrepreneurship.
Indeed, while fixing what wasn’t working from an operations standpoint, and putting the company on a sound fiscal footing, were Coburn’s primary missions at first, he later created — and continued to inspire — new-product development and continuous improvement in production efficiency that caught the attention of the world.
Looking back, Kasper pointed to the year 2001, what he called ‘the renaissance’ of Savage Arms, and what followed, which was the growing popularity of the model 110, the flagship rifle of the company, and important innovations such as the AccuTrigger and AccuStock (more on them later) — key developments in taking the company to where it is today.
While talk of more stringent gun-control measures is driving sales of guns and ammunition to new heights in this country, Kasper said the lessons learned years ago and the ability to stay on the cutting edge of innovation are the real driving forces behind Savage’s continued success.
For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest toured the cavernous, 350,000-square-foot Savage Arms plant in Westfield to get a first-hand look at how the entrepreneurial spirit that originally defined the company and then enabled its historic comeback is still very much in evidence.
Taking Their Best Shot
“Arthur Savage was a prolific inventor — he started with a rifle and built the company from that point,” said Kasper as he showed BusinessWest the expansive front lobby at the plant, which serves as a museum of sorts, showcasing hundreds of rifles, handguns, and some of Savage’s other developments, including an upright washing machine invention and the world’s first motorized lawnmower.
By 1919, Savage and Stevens were manufacturing high-powered rifles, .22-caliber rifles, pistols, and ammunition. Their products caught the attention of Cheyenne Indian Chief Lame Deer, who struck a deal for lever-action rifles in return for Indian-reservation support and endorsement — as well as the imagery that became the Indian head Savage Arms logo, which remains in use today.
Savage passed away as World War II was beginning, but the company provided a variety of weapons for that conflict, including something called the Savage-Halpine torpedo, as well as machine guns for planes and ground forces.
The company moved to the Westfield location in 1959 and continued to grow, said Kasper, but between the early ’60s and late ’80s, several public and private corporations owned and sold Savage Arms.
“These owners were conglomerates and/or private-equity holders that just continually took cash out and put no cash in,” said Kasper, adding that the slide that ended in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing was a two-decade-long decline characterized by inefficient operations — to the point where the cost of making some products exceeded their sales price — and an overall lack of passion in the leadership of the company. With no new-product development and no advancement in equipment, the quality of the products plummeted, and the company fell on very hard times.
Enter Coburn as president and CEO in 1989. Kasper said he analyzed the production line and determined that the only product being made profitably was the lowest-volume product, the model 110 bolt-action rifle.
“Ron did a phenomenal job of taking the corporation from bankruptcy in 1988 and righting the ship, positioning the company to begin a growth path,” said Kasper. “He simplified the right products, stayed the course, and started putting a team together.”
Indeed, Coburn halted all production and, once his analysis was complete, began to focus on lean manufacturing of that one product.
By 1995, Coburn raised enough money to purchase Savage Arms and took it private, later hiring Kasper to assist him with the financials and operations of the company.
In the years to come, the company would put its name on a number of landmark innovations, including the SNAIL, a Savage-designed and patented environmentally friendly shooting-range system that has since been adopted by the NRA, FBI, numerous special forces, all major firearms manufacturers, police, military, and private shooting clubs in the U.S. and 14 other countries.
Meanwhile, in 1998, a hunting handgun called the Striker Rimfire was introduced through a newly acquired factory in Canada, and in late 2000, Savage developed the world’s first smokeless muzzleloader and introduced a number of short magnums to complement its Centerfire rifle series.
While Coburn may have started the rebirth of Savage Arms through independent retailers and national giants like Wal-Mart, in recent years, the rise of mega-specialty sporting-goods stores, like Dick’s, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro Shops, gave Savage even more effective points of sale. Featuring Savage Arms products in an atmosphere that is almost Disney-like for hunting and target-shooting enthusiasts, the manufacturer rose to prominence and caught the attention of ATK.
On June 24, ATK announced that it had completed the acquisition of Savage Sports Corp., allowing Savage’s products to be natural complements to ATK’s existing hunting and shooting sports ammunition and accessories business. Ron Johnson took over briefly as Savage’s CEO after Coburn’s retirement until the sale with ATK, then moved on to head up Savage’s BowTech Archery brand, which ATK did not acquire.
“The Savage acquisition adds tremendous capability to our hunting and shooting sports portfolio,” said Jay Tibbets, ATK Sporting Group president. “Their current offerings are well-positioned as affordable, high-quality products, and Savage Arms will help make us a more valued supplier to our customers.”
Kasper praised ATK’s flexible integration plan and its understanding that, with limited resources, and business being as healthy as it is, shipping products on time and keeping customer service at a high are main focuses.
The company now boasts 468 employees in the Westfield plant, and another 158 split between the Ontario, Canada plant and the Suffield, Conn. sales and marketing office.
Returning to the Coburn legacy, Kasper explained that the former CEO and the team he was building had no qualms about reaching out and seeking advice from experts and those who love hunting and target shooting, and this willingness to reach out has become another key element in the company’s success.
Bill Dermody, director of marketing for Savage, calls this practice “corporate humility,” while quickly acknowledging that this is his term for outreach.
“At Savage, if we want to get into a certain market — long-range target shooting, for example — we don’t assume we know everything,” Dermody told BusinessWest. “We’ll go out and find experts on that topic and bring them in and have them advise us on how that product needs to be.”
But simply soliciting feedback isn’t enough, said Kasper.
“It’s whether you listen to them or not that matters most, and we know our competitors are hearing the same things and seeing the same things in the marketplace,” he said. “Yet, we’re the first to be there and address the issue with a particular product.”
In addition to calling upon experts, listening to customer opinions is a company policy, and commentary is solicited via e-mail and phone, and at more than 70 consumer events and 85 private gun clubs per year in the U.S. alone. Such outreach has been a driving force in the company’s new-product development, strategic plan, and pattern of innovation in recent years.
For instance, the model 110, the former staple of the company during the 2001 renaissance period, is now obsolete. “That gun today has no common components to what Ron was peddling in the ’90s,” Kasper said with a laugh.
The reason is the AccuTrigger.
It was developed by the company in early 2003, and it became the answer to a nagging problem within the industry — the need for a better, crisper trigger that would prevent discharge from jarred or dropped guns. The trigger problem was inadvertently supporting an already established, and quite aggravating, after-market industry of custom gunsmithing, known as ‘trigger jobs,’ that brought an additional expense to gun owners.
“So we looked at these things that gunsmiths were doing to customize rifles and said, ‘how can we do that on a manufacturing basis?’” said Dermody. “How do we give the end user what he wants right up front as a final product?”
The AccuTrigger did more than just solve a safety and accuracy issue for all rifles; it set a new standard in the industry and put Savage back on the map.
“AccuTrigger made people that had never considered buying a Savage want to pick up a Savage and check it out,” said Dermody. So significant was the development that it pulled customers from major competitors like Ruger and Remington.
“If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we’re the most flattered gun company out there,” Dermody added. “And it took everybody [competitors] about five to six years to figure out a way around the patent.”
Not content to rest on its laurels — another trait instilled by Coburn and his leadership team — the innovators at Savage looked for the next problem to solve. They found that, due to the market moving from wood stocks, which would scratch, warp, or dent, to synthetic stocks, which were lighter and less rigid, a new problem had arisen: heat and stress would cause the stock to flex ever so slightly, causing the bullet to fly off line.
The solution, eventually named the AccuStock, was an aluminum-rail system molded into the stock, engaging the action three-dimensionally along the rifle’s entire length.
Both the AccuTrigger and AccuStock are textbook examples of how Savage Arms has stayed on the cutting edge of technology in the industry and how its tradition of innovation has generated visibility and, more importantly, sales.
Today, Savage Arms offers more than a dozen gun models, but there are more than 1,000 SKUs to customize each product. The biggest seller now is the Axis bolt-action mounted rifle, designed and developed to be a low-cost, high-value, entry-level hunting and sporting rifle, offered in a number of calibers.
The front lobby at Savage has always been a tribute to the past, and for a few decades, that’s all it was, because the past was all the company could celebrate.
But today, the pieces on display, including some of the innovations of the past few decades, are symbols of an ongoing tradition of excellence and innovation, and a clear indication that this company isn’t done with creating products that can change an industry.
“The most important part of Ron’s legacy is the team he built here,” Kasper said. “We’re not short on ideas; there are exciting opportunities that lie in front of us.”
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]