The Debrief: Vista's Josh Waldron on the Future of Brands

Vista has been trending toward decentralization of its divisions — allowing its brands to shine and follow distinct paths with less reliance on shared services — and the hiring of Josh Waldron marks a dramatic step in that direction for the Blackhawk, Eagle and Uncle Mike’s brands. Tactical Retailer caught up with Waldron recently to get his thoughts on the future of his brands in the tactical market.

The Debrief: Vista's Josh Waldron on the Future of Brands

The T-Series holsters is the next evolution of Blackhawk’s Master Grip Principle. As the user naturally reaches down to draw on the holster, their hand lands exactly where it should to deploy their side arm.

Josh Waldron was named president of Vista Outdoor’s Blackhawk business unit, which includes the brands Blackhawk, Uncle Mike’s and Eagle in June of 2018. Prior to joining Blackhawk, Waldron co-founded and served as CEO of SilencerCo, a position from which he stepped down in January 2018 to pursue other interests. He also co-founded the American Suppressor Association (ASA) and sits on the board of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. 

Vista has been trending toward decentralization of its divisions — allowing the brands to shine and follow distinct paths with less reliance on shared services — and the hiring of Waldron marks a dramatic step in that direction for the Blackhawk, Eagle and Uncle Mike’s brands. Tactical Retailer caught up with Waldron recently to get his thoughts on the future of his brands in the tactical market. 

TR — Why Blackhawk for you?

JW — When I left SilencerCo, I was consulting and doing some other things and actually wasn’t extremely interested in taking a job at all. I wanted to either start something up or maybe get out of the industry altogether and start something different. This came up a few months later, and it was really revealing to me because of how much I’ve used these products in my life.

They’re great brands, they’re brands that I trust, and I know the history — good, bad and ugly. 

I liked the idea of being able to go in and build a team and turn a company around that once had far greater brand equity, far greater reach, more revenue. To turn it back around, to get it back to its roots and authenticity, get it back to the military roots. Obviously, Eagle has been 100 percent military until now, because we have the retail line coming out. How neat of a story that would be?

I met with Vista, and its vision was exactly what it needed to be to allow that to happen. It was just kind of the next step for me in my career — to go from entrepreneur/CEO to working for a publicly traded company, a much larger company, with four facilities and nearly 1,000 people to be managed — so it was exciting on a personal level as well. I knew that with the ability to build my team, I could do some pretty amazing things and have a fun journey and a fun story to tell, so I just decided to jump in with both feet. 

Josh Waldron
Josh Waldron

TR — What is your vision for Blackhawk, Eagle and Uncle Mike’s? 

JW — The brands have been pretty watered down since the acquisition from ATK and Vista. Under previous leadership in Vista before Chris Metz came along, they really tried to centralize everything. All of our sales, all of our marketing, everything customer-facing was basically taken away and put into shared services in Kansas. 

TR — You were dealing with corporate, not with Blackhawk specifically, for example. 

JW — Right. So products got put in Walmart and all of these things started happening that caused us to lose the credibility of a brand that actually has very good stuff. My vision is to study every product, every product category and every SKU — we have a lot of SKUs — and refresh all of the designs, narrowing the amount of SKUs into focused groups of really high-end products. We want to move forward with the right partners to make sure we have the credibility and authenticity that high-end users and enthusiasts as well as law enforcement and military can appreciate and love, to make it a passion brand again. 

We’re focused heavily on product development — that’s kind of the big strategy push for the foreseeable future — and backing it up with a focused sales team. One of the problems, too, is our sales team was selling all sorts of stuff that really has a different voice, a different group of buyers, and a different identity, so we didn’t get the support we needed on the sales side. So we’re building a stand-alone sales team to sell the product and a marketing team to push the product. 

When Blackhawk started, when Eagle started, and even Uncle Mike’s, we were really tied in with the end-user on the law enforcement/military side. They helped us with product design, development and ideas, actually using the product, giving us feedback and having a very quick turnaround of new iterations of products. Exciting things were happening. That kind of stopped, and we’re bringing it back. 

We moved the brands to Virginia Beach, and that’s very helpful. There’s more active-duty military there than anywhere in the U.S. — SEAL Team Six is there, CAG is close to us in North Carolina, D.C. is very close, so we’re in this awesome hotbed for being able to connect the end-user in a meaningful way and create the best product in the world. I told my product and design team literally the first week I was on board, “Here’s the line in the sand — going forward we will not release a single product if it’s not better than everyone else’s.” 

TR — That’s ambitious.

JW — It is. But that’s what we need to do to get back to where we need to be. So we’ve got products coming out that are really exciting, and they are, without question, the best products in the world in their category. Being connected with people in Virginia Beach, high-end operators, getting that real-time feedback, has allowed us to shape what really needs to happen. There are no “me too” products. We’re really excited about the brand vision — it really is about product and about sales and marketing, to make sure we’re really connected to our users.

The L2C T-Series holsters are RMR-compatible, feature a speed cut for a faster draw and have a low-profile design for ease of concealment. It is duty-rated.
The L2C T-Series holsters are RMR-compatible, feature a speed cut for a faster draw and have a low-profile design for ease of concealment. It is duty-rated.

TR — What kind of trends are you seeing in the tactical market in general, and how do these brands play into that? 

JW — A lot of conceal carry stuff. Obviously, there are 10 million companies who make Kydex holsters. Kydex is not the answer. It’s uncomfortable and rigid, and the reason we’ve seen so many pop up is because you can literally do Kydex in your basement. So we’re looking into material science, making sure that if you want the function of Kydex but you want it to be more comfortable, we’re developing that. It’s about looking at what people want, but doing it better than what’s out there that might not even exist yet. Instead of chasing the trends, we want to set the trends, and that’s kind of how I’ve always run companies. 

But we’ve only been talking about holsters. On the apparel side, really high-end, low-vis clothing is the way we want to go. We don’t want everyone to walk around and be like, oh, that’s a Blackhawk thing. We want our brand recognizable, but we want our clothes to be very fashionable yet functional with low visibility. We’ll always do our core business for military and law enforcement with the uniform-type stuff and the tactical stuff, but we really want to get into lifestyle clothing that allows people to carry guns and knives and to train tactically without looking like it. And that’s kind of where I see the trends in the industry going as well — there’s a lot of people doing that; we just need to do it better than them. 

On-gun accessories, we’re hitting that hard as well with an emphasis on having high-end stuff. There are a lot of gunmakers and gun designers in the world, but we have capabilities in our manufacturing processes to make sure we do high-quality stuff, so we’re excited about that whole channel. And in each one of our four main product categories, we’re completely restarting and redoing our strategy. We’re going to be launching new products in all of those categories. We’re really just trying to change the brand perception. 

TR — You’re going for a little more higher-end quality rather than competing on price point? 

JW — Yes. There will be categories where we are competing on price point, especially with the Uncle Mike’s brand. Uncle Mike’s has always been kind of a general population brand, even though we’re going to make sure the quality is better than it has been in the past. But it’s always going to be that lower-tier price-point brand. But Blackhawk and Eagle will be aspirational brands with a higher price point, because they’re driven by innovation. There’s no race to the bottom. The way we’re going to do things moving forward is going to be very different, protecting our prices and making sure the brand’s not diluted by selling it to the wrong channels. 

TR — You have a somewhat non-traditional background for a company president. How do you think that entrepreneurial background has helped you take over such a corporate brand like this? 

JW — Yeah, it’s helpful and also a pain in the ass, because I challenge everything. I see procedures and processes in place that I’m constantly challenging, which can be good to make things more efficient in some ways, but it’s a struggle as well to have the mindset of an entrepreneur but have these strict guardrails. But there’s tremendous value in having a lot of resources and capital and network behind you with a huge company, to be able to really do the things we want to do in an accelerated fashion. 

TR — Is there anything you want to say to the readers — the guys behind the gun counter, running the tactical stores? 

JW — Yeah, that new products are coming out that are going to be amazing. That’s really what it is. This company has been slow to innovate for the past several years, since the acquisition, and so a lot of our products are outdated. It’s going to be really exciting for retailers to see increased demand, just because we have products that are new and fresh. And we’re pairing that with better sales support and marketing support to help drive demand. 

Retailers will be seeing products move off their shelves much faster than they historically have. Not to mention that we have good relationships with our dealers and wholesalers and everyone else. We’re bringing that function back in-house as well, so we can have better accessibility, communication and transparency with our dealers, which is something that has been lacking for a long time. It seems like everybody’s really excited about that alone, just to know that they can pick up the phone and talk to someone who knows a lot about the brand rather than just going into some shared service. So I think retailers are going to be really pleased with the new direction, the new products, the marketing support and all of that. 

Rather than have big launches at a show with 60,000 people with a million new products [SHOT Show], we’re really going to try to have more launches more often, which will be fun, because it keeps Blackhawk and Eagle in everyone’s minds — they’re going to constantly see new things coming out. For retailers, that’s great, because it drives people into the store. There’s always something new, and everyone knows that new things sell. 


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