Interview: Did You Ever Wonder How Brownells Got So Successful?

In the midst of thousands of accessory retailers in the last eight years, Brownells has a legacy of expansive products and top tier service since its inception in 1939.
Interview: Did You Ever Wonder How Brownells Got So Successful?

It is hard to think about upgrading any firearm without thumbing through the pages of a Brownells' catalog or clicking through their massive website, but Brownells offers more than just firearms upgrades. Customers, sportsman, professional and kitchen table gunsmiths all use Brownells for everything ranging from archery equipment to just the right tool or paint to begin a tough gunsmithing or custom project.

In the midst of thousands of accessory retailers in the last eight years, Brownells has a legacy of expansive products and top tier service since its inception in 1939. From its initial Number One catalog featuring the best gunsmithing tools available, to printed and online catalogs featuring more than 90,000 gun parts, tools and supplies, the company’s motto has been “to deliver everything you need all in one place.”

Brownells also offers factory parts from 15 of the industry’s leading firearms manufacturers of rifles, shotgun and handgun parts and tools and accessories. Additionally, it offers bluing and refinishing materials, books, videos, reference information, sights, scopes and mounts.

I recently had an opportunity to talk with Frank Brownell III, who is Brownells’ chairman of the board, about what makes the industry and Brownells tick.

SSR: How would you describe Brownells to the industry?

BROWNELL: Brownells is one of the few third-generation businesses still around in the firearms and sporting industry. The company was started by my father Bob, then I led the company, and now my son Pete has taken the helm as the new CEO driving a new level of growth for the company. We are headquartered in Montezuma, Iowa, and focus on gunsmithing, reloading supplies, products for firearms, archery and other outdoor sports. With the addition of our new Grinnell, Iowa, facility, we can now offer even more in terms of service, shipping speed and products.

SSR: I know the new Grinnell, Iowa, facility is big, but what other advantages does it offer customers?

BROWNELL: We had completely outgrown our original Montezuma facility and we were also outgrowing what we could do in the very small town of 1,400 people. Capacity was not our only problem. We were a non-hub-aligned early UPS stop for shipping pickups, which meant we could really only ship yesterday’s orders. As a non-hub-aligned city, our shipments had to bounce around through a smaller sort facility before ending up in the UPS Des Moines shipping hub. All the way around our shipping was slower than it should have been at the old facility.

The new Grinnell facility is right off Interstate 80, which allows [for] an end-of-day UPS shipping pickup that heads directly to the Des Moines UPS hub. Shipments are now one to two days faster. As a growing company, recruiting top talent into an extremely small farming community is tough. The new location is much more attractive for professional and college talent who are commuting from Des Moines and Iowa City. College students are a big pool of talent for us in all aspects of our business.

SSR: Are there benefits from a technology and foot traffic perspective as well?

BROWNELL: Our power backup system was old and outdated in our original facility. Paired with the often less reliable rural power infrastructure in Montezuma, clean power to our site, systems, call center and warehouse was as issue. The new Grinnell facility, by contrast, is sitting on the backbone of Iowa’s power grid and telecommunications and data fiber-optics pipeline. With our new facility’s expanded power backup and exponentially improved communication and power network, we have leapfrogged our future needs instead of fighting with a constrained power and communication grid.

SSR: ...and the foot traffic?

BROWNELL: We did want to offer a more convenient location for pick up orders and support for a walk-in order placement/pickup experience. We also have planned a rather expansive firearms sales showroom.

We are targeting a March 2016 grand opening of our retail center with the capability for customers to both place and pick up orders. In typical Brownells fashion, the retail showroom will be a little unique in the industry. The concept is a firearm sales showroom floor, but the Brownells’ catalog items will not be in the showroom. Customers will have the ability to pick up previously placed orders or place new orders via some type of kiosk for immediate pick up, but we are still working out all those details.

SSR: How has Brownells repositioned to remain competitive?

BROWNELL: My father hated computers and only wanted to use them as mailing list management. Customers have said they still want the catalog, but our online sales deliver the most updated product selection and inventory levels. Catalogs are still very strong for us, including category-specific, single-focus catalogs for ARs, reloading, .45 ACP 1911s and archery, but we are becoming more of an online company than a catalog company. Online is approximately 85 percent of the business. The rest of the sales are going through other sales channels. Those numbers might change with the new Grinnell facility.

SSR: What is hot and what is not?

BROWNELL: The inexpensive kits for AR-15 builders has dramatically slowed, but the little gadgets, match triggers, billet parts, optics, etc. are a hot area. Precision bolt gun triggers, stocks and other DIY upgrades are another hot area. Typical turnaround times from gunsmiths have also decreased, which inherently drives more sales.

It would seem that now that everyone who wants guns has them and is tricking them out or going for the upgrades. More and more people are doing DIY upgrades themselves. ARs build confidence with the home kitchen table gunsmith and the trick little parts are hot.

SSR: What is your perspective on industry sales?

BROWNELL: This year is better than last year. We see it slowly creeping back to where we would like it to be. We do evaluate many market trends. We have found that when home-based purchase indexes and sales bubbles such as cars, refrigerators and carpet are up, our sales are slower and vise versa. Another indicator we look at is NICS (FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check Service) numbers. The current trend of NICS checks paired with gun sales data indicates that “new gun” sales [are] not that active, but “used gun” sales are way up and customers love to upgrade used guns.

SSR: What is your point of view for SHOT Show 2016?

BROWNELL: My buyers are [happy] with the pre-releases they saw at the NSGA show and the rumors around all the new firearms this year expected at SHOT. For distributors, the NSGA show has probably become more important than SHOT. Sadly, we are seeing that most of the gun factories are not really doing that well and I think it will be [a] good year for distributors and, ultimately, customers to take advantage of some amazing deals.

SSR: Is Brownells pursuing the LEO and military markets?

BROWNELL: For our niche, we service the LEO and troops who have to buy their own upgrades, and this represents a significant portion of our business. Moms and dads are also buying firearm upgrades for their military sons or daughters. We excel at delivering around the world to these remote APOs and just opened a European division to improve delivery times overseas.


SSR: What is the ugly part of the industry right now?

BROWNELL: I am a glass is three-quarters full kind of guy, so I always attempt to look at the good parts of bad situations. We are over the “permanently factory backordered” situations and delivery times have now shortened up to something workable for the customer. That noted, I know factories are hurting and some are a little cash starved.

SSR: Does that include .22LR ammo?

BROWNELL: There is still an ammo shortage with .22LR. Factories say the maxed machines are very expensive and .22LR ammo is arguably the most difficult and dangerous ammo to load. Most major manufacturers do not have the justification to invest in additional equipment. We are seeing the higher-end .22LR ammo start to hit the shelves again, but the lower-cost plinking ammo is still hard to come by.

SSR: The word in the industry is that there is a growing backlog of accounts receivable. Do you have a perspective on the trend?

BROWNELL: Industry wide, distributors are attempting to take advantage of the cash-strapped manufacturers. Brownells policy is to always take the factory discount, which helps us and the factories. For the business customers on net accounts, our payment receivable times have increased, but not disproportionately to our business account growth.

SSR: It is not [a] secret that you are a huge gun collector. I must ask, what is your favorite oil for gun lubrication and storage?

BROWNELL: I use Sheath Oil because my Dad invented it. Ultimately, he sold the formula to Birchwood Casey, which was later rebranded to Barricade. There was some testing completed some time ago, which showed it was still one of the top performance protectants.


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