By Todd L. Reding
While watching the new 250,000 square foot facility under construction, and the hundreds of employees funneling in-and-out of the Montezuma, Iowa headquarters; it is easy to forget that Brownells began by empowering individual gunsmiths and gun owners in a way never before imagined. The now behemoth company once occupied Bob Brownell’s humble home when the avid camper, angler and part-time gunsmith started assembling an inventory of gunsmithing tools and supplies. He was an early example of a disruptive entrepreneur; creating a new avenue for gun service and repair without going through the large gun manufacturers.
“It all began in my grandfather’s home,” says Pete Brownell, CEO of the company. “He saw an opportunity to help gunsmiths service their customers without having to deal with the manufacturers.” In 1939, gun owners typically had only one option to repair a gun. They packaged the firearm and sent it via mail to the actual manufacturer. After many exchanges and a lengthy wait, the gun would return repaired for a considerable sum. Bob Brownell recognized the opportunity to build a middle channel, and educate and empower gunsmiths to provide this service at a local level. But, they needed better tools and they needed information.
“My grandfather was an avid writer,” says Pete. “He wrote letters to gunsmiths and answered their questions. He asked all of the large gun companies for copies of their product specifications and organized this information into a book called The Encylopedia of Modern Firearms, published by Brownell. He also wrote a Q & A article in American Rifleman called the “Jack-Laig Journal.” In those days, there was a real void of information for gun service and repair, and my grandfather filled that void.”
Those exchanges gained in popularity and eventually grew into Brownell’s own branded collection of books known as Gunsmith Kinks. These writings on tips and tricks for the gunsmith demonstrated the company’s eternal commitment to sharing information and education for all gun owners. Even today, the company logs thousands of hours of training video, pages of regularly published journals and newsletters, and the pinnacle of gun related information known as the “Big Book” – the company’s annually published catalog that boasts nearly 800 pages The company possesses an unusual loyalty to the free exchange of information to aid gunsmiths and gun owners in their pursuits as demonstrated by more than 18,000 hours of technical phone support in 2013. This unique characteristic is as much a part of the culture as the family name.
Equal to the company’s early commitment to empowering gunsmiths is its family roots. Bob’s son, Frank, worked in the company as a teenager. He returned in 1964, after serving in the Navy, and worked alongside his father as the company grew. Brownells, however, remained devout to its core vision. Through expansion and acquisition, the company never strayed from the idea of empowering people and giving them the tools to succeed. Even in the early 1970s, Brownells was considered the most significant resource for information, training and supplies for the independent gunsmith.
Frank Brownell took over the company in 1983. Its growth was immense. By the early 80s, the Montezuma, Iowa facility had undergone two expansions. The employee count exceeded 40. And Brownells was selling products around the world in all but 17 countries.
The 400-plus-employee company remains very quiet about sales volume and general size. Some sources suggest annual revenues have exceeded $250 million and future growth may exceed the $1 billion mark within ten years. In 2013, the company took in 534,407 calls to its support center, received over 74,500 packages and estimates the number of products at more than 90,000.
Bob Brownell would likely be proud of his company’s continuing commitment to its employees, and its surrounding communities. Brownells provides three scholarships annually to graduates of Montezuma High School. The company offers financial assistance to college-bound children of Brownell’s employees. It organizes, and funds, an annual training conference for gunsmiths and provides stipends for attendance. Brownells has helped fund concerts-in-the-park programs, the Grinnell High School expansion, local libraries, housing initiatives, hospitals, aquatic centers and many more.
Like Frank, his son Pete Brownell began working in the company as a child. He later earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa in 1991 and didn’t return to Iowa until 1996 after a career in marketing. In 2000, he was named Vice President, and he continued leading the company into the digital age. He was named CEO in 2012, making the company a true, third-generation firm. In addition to his service on the National Rifle Association Board of Directors, he has been an advocate for the State of Iowa’s economic growth. He was appointed to the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Board, where he is currently the Vice Chair.
Influenced by Pete’s direction, Brownells entered the digital age in 1997. It launched a simple website, that has grown into one of the most significant and robust digital platforms for the gun industry in the world. Today, website users can select virtually any gun from any maker and view its specifications. While viewing the “exploded” view of the parts and assembly, a customer can hover over a single part and see pricing, specs, reviews, etc. In other sections of the site, users can actually assemble and customize their own gun. They can sort through various components and “build” the firearm; placing parts in their online basket. The Brownells website has become a central part of the company’s business, bringing in more than 500,000 weekly visitors. However, it remains consistent with their ideals by featuring thousands of pages of information, videos, links and other resources to help gun owners solve their problems.
Inside the company’s crowded halls wander true “gun people.”. These “gun and archery techs” are the people taking calls and helping customers. They are enthusiasts, rather than telemarketers. The water cooler conversation is typically about new products, or a hunting experience, rather than last night’s ball game. It isn’t uncommon to see an assortment of shotguns and rifles leaning in an office corner, and pistols adorn bookshelves. The entire facility has a feel of authenticity and immersion into the life of their customer.
The future of the company involves its continued dedication to its core principles, while expanding into new markets. The company recently invested in the archery segment and now features the largest online supply house for archery supplies in the world. Future expansions will capitalize on its strengths in education and distribution for underserved market areas. “We want to continue doing what we do well; but do it for additional audiences,” says Pete. “My grandfather’s commitment to people will live throughout our existence,” he says. “And now we bring that unique commitment to a wider market.”
The new 250,000 square foot facility in Grinnell, Iowa will augment the space in Montezuma. It will house company management, new distribution spaces, and a retail center. “Our new facility is an example of our growth, and our commitment to the principles that got us here,” says Pete. “We are a small town Iowa company that can out-compete the big dogs.”
Seventy-five years later, the company celebrates its milestone anniversary during the same week Frank Brownell will celebrate his 75th birthday. One can only imagine Bob Brownell is celebrating alongside.
Todd L. Reding serves as an editor and contributing writer for The Grinnell Business Journal, and President of Our Grinnell Media Corp. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.