Gun Sights Maker Re-Engineers Factory To Supply Military In Pandemic
Leupold is a 113-year-old, family-owned business manufacturing rifle scopes, firearm sights, and other optics in Beaverton, Oregon. With more than 650 employees and a factory that runs seven days a week, they manufacture the types of products that have to work every time, under pressure.
“That moment of truth when is when you’re behind that sight and pulling the trigger, and we want to make sure it’s the absolute best quality you can possibly be,” said Leupold CEO Bruce Pettet.
Leupold is not just popular among hunters and sportsmen, but is considered an essential business to law enforcement and military personnel who rely on their innovative optics. Pettet spoke to The Federalist about why Leupold is committed to manufacturing in America and how their factory has adapted during coronavirus and the sweeping financial crisis.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Why is it so important that your products are made in America?
One of the characteristics of our product is that it’s incredibly rugged, and I think of us as Americans and I think that’s one of the things we’re known for. We have incredibly accurate precision optics that we make, and it’s quite complicated, but at the end of the day, it’s got to work in really tough situations. I think when people buy something from Leupold, they know that it’s an American-made optic that’s gonna perform, and it’s gonna perform in often the worst type of environments. I think that ruggedness that we bring is is really part of the American spirit.
If you were to outsource production to another country like China, do you think the quality would go up or down?
There’s no one in the United States that does what we do. And so that would leave the option of really going to Asia, which is what most of our competitors do. And frankly, there’s no chance that they can deliver the kind of quality that we do. We truly believe that.
We’re hunters and shooters, and the folks in this company live what we do. And so it’s really critical that you understand the product and a lot of the countries where other rifle scopes are made, frankly, the people working on those rifle scopes–they don’t hunt, they don’t shoot. They don’t have the opportunity to do that.
Not only is the manufacturing piece of it a big deal, but we have over 80 engineers that are right here in our building, working on improving our product every single day. And I think it’s, it’s more than just, “Hey, we make it here.” It’s actually this entire team that comes together to conceptualize a product and drives it all the way through design and engineering.
Another factor is that when we need to make changes on the go, we don’t have to send something out. If we find something is not working the way we want, we can right then and there go to work on it. That’s actually helped us a lot in our military business. We work with a lot of our elite military and they have very, very high expectations of how a product is going to perform. So there’s a lot of iterations that go into making that product.
When you first learned about coronavirus and how serious it was, what kind of steps did you have to take to ensure that your factory and that your employees were able to work keep working and to keep manufacturing going?
Because we have Department of Defense contracts, so we knew that we were in an essential business so I was never worried about someone telling us we can’t operate. We actually got some urging from the Department of Defense and their purchasing department telling us we had to keep manufacturing because of some of our contracts.
We had to make some changes to our factory layout, which was challenging. We made the decision to actually close our factory and do a complete deep clean of all the offices, factory, everything. Then our engineering team and factory team came in and said, “Where are the places where we’re working tight?” Right, you have that when you have 600 people. So we reengineered our factory, particularly assembly, to make sure that they have the proper social distance and to make sure we’re following the guidelines that have been laid out.
We made sure that we reengineered so that the priority products for our military and for our law enforcement, that those were the priority. So it did take away a little production from what would be our normal commercial sales, but we actually upped our production on some products like our DeltaPoint Pro Reflex sight, which which a number of our military law enforcement users use.
Our average employee has been with us for 12 years. I’ve got some that have been here for over 40. I think I’ve got 12 over 14 years. When you have the kind of tenure that we have, it is kind of like a family. Everyone wanted to roll up their sleeves and get this thing done. I was pretty impressed and I’m just blessed to have a team that is willing to get after do what they did.
We saw a huge spike in gun sales related to coronavirus, especially at the onset. Did you see any similar responses in your industry?
No, we really didn’t actually, especially with all the retail stores getting shut down. There was spikes in gun sales and ammo and I think if you look at what was really happening that consumer was going in, waiting in line, standing outside to pass the background check, and then going in directly and getting that specific item. We’re an accessory to a firearm, so customers typically stand back, look at what they want, want look through it, and try these things out, which wasn’t happening with the slowdown in retail.
Thankfully, we have other pieces of our business that that were already established and going like I’d mentioned on our military and law enforcement side. We had a steady business but we really didn’t see any spikes.
Leupold is more than 100 years old, so you’ve been through a lot historically as a company. What have you learned as a business from the surviving through events like the Great Depression or other financial crises that may have helped you now?
Our founder, Fred Leupold, had a saying that had established the company with that has continued in our core values as an organization, it’s never gone away in 113 years. “We’re always going to give the customer a square deal.” And that spawned what we believe in today, which is another one of our taglines, “Be relentless.” I think that that mindset of Fred Leupold, then the Stephens family, then on down the line as this this company has been built, has always been that attitude of, We’re going to be resilient. We’re going to be relentless in improving and in doing things better every single day.
I think we were able to deal with this situation better than probably a lot of companies because of that heritage of you know what, don’t cry about it, it’s not great, and nobody wanted the situation to happen, but let’s roll up our sleeves and together we can we can get through this.
Another one our core values is called “Defend our ground.” And what that’s really about is that it’s up to us. It’s up to us to make sure that we continue forward. So we’ve actually been giving out awards to some our team members during this crisis. We are awarding those employees who have gone above and beyond, trying to work hard, social distance, and follow all the guidelines.
We want to make sure our team is safe. And we actually established, for lack of a better term, a social distancing czar because the factory is a busy place. And we have people who can work from home. They’re now working from home, but that used to never happen in our company so we made some changes.
We reduced the amount of total team members that are in the factory, but those folks that have to be there every day, they’ve been able to really get it done. And I just think that it comes back to that heritage that you’re referring to of “this is what we got to do, let’s go do it right.”
Some people would argue that it’s better for the U.S. to just import cheaper goods from China than it is to make them here in America. What would you say to them?
They can’t make the quality. They just can’t do. They don’t they don’t have the understanding. They can try to replicate that, but there’s nothing like having engineers, manufacturing engineers, and team members that live and breathe the product.
In our particular case, you know the the folks that are making rifle scopes over in China? They’re not using those themselves. All that is is an assembly line and they’re working on this brand and that brand, and they just can’t do what we do. Building American craftsmanship, the way we have for over 70 years of building rifle scopes, I just don’t know how you would replicate that over there.
On the other hand, if you think you’re going to get business just because you’re an American manufacturer, you’re kind of kidding yourself. That’s the reality. Because the consumer still gets to choose. We have to prove that the products that you buy here, that we manufacture in the U.S., are more innovative, more rugged, and that they deliver on their promise.
Being made in America is never going to be enough on its own. You’ve got to make sure that you’re delivering on every other aspect.