Bob Brownell & The American Dream
June 30, 2014
With the famed gunsmithing house celebrating 75 years in business, Coffield takes an affectionate look at its founder and his former boss.
I remember the phone call and how shocked I was to get it. It was a normal afternoon in the late fall of 1981. I was workin' in my little gunsmith shop in Rutherfordton, North Carolina takin' care of last minute repairs for local hunters. I answered as usual, "Coffield's Gunsmith Shop, Reid Coffield speaking. May I help you?"
"This is Bob Brownell. I'd like to talk with you a bit if you have time."
Holy cow! Bob Brownell! I couldn't have been more surprised if the President of the United States had called. I was talking to Bob Brownell! He was without a doubt the best-known person in the gunsmithing world at the time because of his gunsmith supply business. Every gunsmith I knew dealt with Brownells and every one of 'em loved the company and thought highly of Bob.
I was finally able to get over my shock and uttered a few words which must not have been totally idiotic as it was the beginning of a long relationship with Bob, his son Frank, and the finest gunsmithing supply company in the world, Brownells.
The call was about a resume I sent in response to an ad Bob had placed in The American Rifleman for a gunsmith. At the time I thought it was a waste of a perfectly good stamp but what the hell, I had nothing to lose and my wife and three-year old son had some strange notions about regular paychecks, food, housing and that sort of thing. At the end of the call my wife and I were invited out to Montezuma for an interview.
I couldn't believe it would amount to anything and hell, I didn't even know where Montezuma was located. It was somewhere in Iowa but that was about all I knew. My wife was actually familiar with the community, as she went to college in a small town just a few miles north of Montezuma.
A month or so later we walked into the rather modest building that housed Brownells, and it just so happened there was Bob behind the counter, ready to welcome us with a smile and a friendly word. To make a long story short, after two days of interviews, being shown around the town by Bob, and meeting just about everyone at Brownells, I was offered a job. I immediately accepted. I figured I better before they figured out what a hell of a mistake they were makin'!
I actually started work for Bob on April 1, 1982. Yeah, I started on April Fool's Day. Bob loved to point out to me and anyone else that he never quite figured out whether the joke was on me or him.
From then until his death in 1991, I had the rare privilege of working for and with one of the most unique and certainly likeable individuals in the firearms world. Bob was one of a kind and has had an incredible impact on gunsmithing as well as on the many folks that came in contact with him.
For all the honors and accolades given to Bob over the years, and every darn one of 'em was well deserved as far as I'm concerned, he was still just a very ordinary guy. He grew up in a small town in Iowa and was educated in the public schools.
His dad was a businessman and ran several different businesses over the years. Bob went to college in Iowa and majored in journalism. He told me once he wanted to be a writer but it just never quite worked out.
Lots of folks tend to think of success as something that occurs quickly. You hear about it all the time. This or that singer, actor, inventor, or whatever is suddenly an overnight success. The reality is most successful people or companies take a damn long time to achieve success. Not only that, there are generally lots of failures, mistakes, and dead ends. Bob would be the first to tell you he made many mistakes along the way. Like you and me, he was just a regular guy.
Soon after starting work at Brownells I was introduced to the ritual of break time. Every morning and every afternoon, everyone, and I mean everyone, gathered in the break area for coffee and relaxation. Keep in mind when I started there probably weren't more than 30 or 35 folks or so at Brownells.
All the women would sit at one set of tables and all the guys at another table. Bob was always there and he always had tales to tell and jokes to share. By the way, Bob loved slightly off-color limericks. He must have known thousands of 'em and delighted in sharing 'em with the guys.
I look back now and realize Bob saw this little daily ritual as important in building personal relationships. It was a time to talk about your kids, your family, and just visit with your friends with whom you just happened to work.
During break time I learned a lot about Bob and how he developed his business. He didn't start out to have a gunsmith supply house or even to work with firearms. I would guess next to his wife and family, Bob loved fishing more than anything else. His first ventures after marriage to his wife Lois were attempts to set up fishing resorts; first in southern Missouri and then later in Minnesota. Both ended in total disaster.
Bob often joked about what an idiot he was to try to start a fishing resort during the depths of the Great Depression. He pointed out time and again the importance of making sure you were offering what folks really wanted. He often commented on the danger to any businessman of letting his own likes or desires influence his decisions. On several occasions this happened to Bob but he was able and willing to look back at what happened and learn from it.
During the disastrous attempt at running the fishing lodge in Minnesota, Bob was forced to work as a lumberjack just to make ends meet. He never forgot that experience and often commented about it. He once told us the only thing that kept him and Lois from starving was a very understanding game warden. I got the impression Bob and Lois ate a lot of venison during that winter.
Eventually they had to acknowledge they just were not going to make a go of it in Minnesota so the young couple returned to Montezuma, where Bob's dad had a grocery store. As they were coming into town in a worn out ol' Model A Ford, Bob realized they were almost out of gas. He looked for a gas station and then realized there wasn't one on this main approach into town. At the moment of his greatest failure, Bob saw an opportunity. He would open a gas station!
This was classic Bob Brownell. Here he was broke, humiliated by failure and having to crawl back home with his tail between his legs, as he put it, to live with his folks.
At the same time, he saw an opportunity and was convinced he could make good with it. As he related, he hit every relative he had for money to set up a small gas station and all-night diner he opened in 1937. By the way, when I moved to Montezuma, the diner was still there and while under a different name and ownership, it was still goin' strong!
Bob learned a lot about running a successful business from the gas station and diner. Like most small business owners, he put in an incredible number of hours and learned some tough lessons. As he told me many times, he saw over and over again the importance of taking care of your customers and building customer loyalty. He firmly believed if you took care of your customers, they in turn would take care of you. I saw that proven time after time while working with Bob and this continues to be one of the major characteristics of Brownells to this day.
It was while he had the gas station he really got into guns and again, it was one of those situations where something bad was turned into something good. It seems Bob developed a severe allergy to some of the chemicals used back in those days in antifreeze. Unfortunately no one was able to immediately figure this out and Bob ended up confined to bed for extended periods.
He often spoke of that experience. He said he was lying in bed, depressed as hell one day when one of his friends walked into his bedroom. The fellow pulled out a 1911 .45 and tossed it to him. He told Bob it was something he could work on and who knows, he might be able to slick it up and make it into a better shooter.
Bob was not entirely ignorant about guns. He had owned some, hunted, and occasionally traded a few back and forth but he had never gotten into real gunsmithing. That changed with his illness. He said he ordered every book on gunsmithing he could find and back in the '30's that wasn't many! Bob read them cover to cover and began paying close attention to every gunsmithing article and bit of information in The American Rifleman. At that time, this was really the only gun magazine in print.
Eventually Bob was able to go back to work, but he continued to work with guns as well. He not only had a shop at home but he set aside a small area in the garage as well. Pretty soon word got around that the "Brownell boy could fix your gun" and he began to do repairs for the public.
One thing lead to another, and by the end of World War II, Bob was set up in a vacant store on the square in Montezuma offering a variety of gunsmithing services. In fact, at one point he was doing commercial bluing for other dealers and gunsmiths. Some of his earliest ads in The American Rifleman are for his bluing services.
By the late '40s, Bob had quite a crew of guys working for him in the gunsmith shop. One of those fellows was Wayne Fleming, whom I knew as the head buyer when I worked for Bob. Wayne was just a kid fresh out of the Navy after the war when he went to work for Bob. I once asked him what it was like to work for Bob back then. As Wayne put it, "It was frustrating as hell!" I was surprised with his response so I asked him to tell me more.
Wayne said one of the things about Bob's shop was there was absolutely nothing in it not for sale. He told me once about working away on a buffing rig polishing up a Model 12 shotgun in preparation for bluing. He spent hours working on the gun when Bob walked up, cut the machine off, reached over and took away the buffing wheels. Wayne was at a loss for words. Bob didn't do things like that. Then he realized Bob was over at the counter selling those same buffing wheels to a local gunsmith who had come in looking for polishing supplies!
Bob quickly picked up on the fact other folks doing gun work needed gunsmithing tools and equipment. Fortunately Bob had a gift for locating sources of supply. Eventually this lead to the transition of the gunsmith shop into a gunsmith supply house. Again it was gradual and it didn't happen overnight.
There were a number of things that happened along the way to help the business. Wayne remembers one afternoon when he and Bob were alone in the shop. They heard a heck of a racket outside as a powerful sports coupe slid to a stop in front of the store.
A little guy jumped out, looked around and walked purposely into the store. When he got in, he looked at Bob and then at Wayne, stuck out his hand and said, "Hello, I'm Bill Ruger and you and I are gonna make money together."
That was the beginning of a lifelong relationship Bob had with Bill. For years Bob sold Ruger firearms and even owned a few very rare shares of stock in Ruger.
The other major event for Bob was the publishing in 1959 of The Encyclopedia of Modern Firearms. This book, which is still in print after more than 55 years, is a compilation of U.S. military and commercial firearms manufacturer gunsmithing manuals along with some very handy charts dealing with screw, spring and pin shapes and sizes.
If you have to ever make a missing screw for some older gun, you might find just the info you need in the Encyclopedia. At the time, it was a major breakthrough for gunsmiths. Here at last in one source was a tremendous amount of information and data on guns. It sold like ice cream on a hot July day.
Bob said it was by far and away the one thing that enabled the business to grow. Prior to the Encyclopedia he just didn't have the necessary extra capital to invest for more products to inventory and sell through the catalog. The Encyclopedia changed all that. It also helped to get Bob additional recognition within the industry.
Bob's writing background really came into play when he was picked up as the firearms editor for Sporting Goods Dealer, a firearms industry publication based in the Midwest. For years, Bob wrote about guns and new products for this magazine. It was a great venue for him and enabled him to make a tremendous number of contacts that were essential for his growing business.
At the same time Bob was building his business, he didn't forget his family or his community. I suppose at one time or another Bob probably held every major elective office in Montezuma, ranging from town mayor to the school board. He gave freely of his time and resources to the community. He was definitely a community leader in the most positive way.
I mentioned earlier about Bob and break time at Brownells. He also made it a point every morning to "walk the floor" as he put it. Each morning he would visit with everyone in the shop. He made it a point to know everyone and learn about their family and their lives. He was not just an owner and boss; he was really a friend to the folks around him.
His longtime secretary Sharon Gibson once told me about an incident which took place a few years before I arrived. It was during the Carter administration and the economy was in the tank. Everyone was hurting. Sales were down, interest rates were sky high, inflation was in double digits, and prices for everything including groceries were constantly going up. Business for everyone, including Brownells, was not good, to say the least.
Bob and Lois were at the local grocery store and Bob saw several of his employees doing their shopping. He noticed what they had in their carts and heard their comments about the higher prices. He didn't say anything to anyone. The next day he called everyone together and spoke about how the economy was affecting the business. He also announced a 10% raise for everyone.
Sharon said after the initial shock people were crying and overcome with emotion. That was the way Bob worked. It might not have been in the best interest of his business but he saw folks in a bind and he wanted to help 'em and he did.
Because of that kind of action, the loyalty of the employees to Bob was just incredible. He was truly loved. We use to joke the only way anyone ever left Brownells was either their spouse had to move for a new job or they just died! It was a rare, rare thing for anyone ever to leave Bob Brownell.
Even though Bob worked hard to build his business he never neglected his family. Frank, his son and currently Chairman of the Board, told me Bob was home for dinner at night with the family and always made time for him and his sisters.
This carried over into how Bob felt about his employees and their families. One of the few times I ever had Bob seriously chew my rear was when he found out I was making a habit of working late at night taking care of customer correspondence. In no uncertain terms Bob made the point my family was to come first. The other stuff could wait. He truly felt your family should and must come first.
Bob did make mistakes and sometimes he failed to spot trends within the industry. He built his business dealing with small gunsmith shops that primarily served hunters. Bob was slow to appreciate the growth of other forms of recreational shooting. At times he was reluctant to pick up products for these new sports and markets. His son Frank was much more attuned to that aspect of the business.
When Frank joined Bob it added a much-needed additional perspective and skill set to the company. Together, the two of them made a very effective team and from that point on the business really took off. The growth continues to this day. Pete, Bob's grandson, is now in the driver's seat and like his dad and grandfather before him, he brings a new set of skills and talents to the company. From what I've seen, it appears Brownells will continue to grow and prosper. Much of this is due to the basic principles established by Bob years ago.
The emphasis still is and always has been taking care of the customer. Bob firmly believed you had to treat the customer as you would want to be treated. He also liked to keep things simple. He guaranteed ever item he sold. If you didn't like it, he wanted you to send it back for a full refund.
There were never any hassles or questions. After 75 years, those guiding principles are still the foundation of Brownells, an American firearms institution founded by an amazing and unique man who achieved the American dream. I was truly blessed and fortunate to have known and worked with him.