It might seem odd that a Belgian company speaking French at headquarters was the birthplace — indeed, it is now the home — of some of the most enduring American firearms brands and designs. However odd it seems, it is a fact.
FNH is Fabrique National Herstal, Herstal being the Belgian city that is now home to an international operation manufacturing defense, law enforcement and commercial firearms and marketing them on every continent. Back in the day, Herstal was John M. Browning’s final laboratory for development for instance, the enduring Browning Auto-5 shotgun and the refinement of many other advanced designs.
In the U.S., FNH has been through several corporate iterations. Most recently, in June 2014 Philippe Claessens, CEO of the Herstal Group (which includes FNH), announced the consolidation of FN Manufacturing in Columbia, South Carolina, and FNH USA in McLean, Virginia, into a single legal entity, which is now FN America. Jean-Louis Vanderstraeten retired as president and CEO of FN Manufacturing and became advisor to FN America’s chairman of the board.
At the time, Mark Cherpes said the consolidation created “an exciting opportunity for efficiency, growth and profitability. This merger will ensure a stronger, more agile organization that is better poised to meet current and future U.S. market challenges.” He noted the move would generate multiple benefits for distributors, dealers and consumers, including streamlined development and production of existing and new products and services.
So who is Mark Cherpes? Cherpes is president and CEO of FN America. It was only fitting that Tactical Retailer grab a bit of Mark’s time to discuss the future of the shooting sports and FN America’s thriving position and potential in the shooting community.
TR: What exactly do you do at FN America?
Cherpes: I’m responsible for the strategic direction of our U.S. operations. OK, that sounds like a lawyer’s mouthful, but it means I get involved in product development, manufacturing, sales and marketing, customer service, logistics and much more.
TR: You’ve been with FNH for some time now. Can you tell us a little more about the company to inform retailers who might not be familiar with it and its product?
Cherpes: FN Herstal — let’s just call it FN — our parent company, has a history dating back to 1889. Eight years later, FN and John Browning formed a partnership that resulted in some of the most technologically advanced firearms of the era like the M1900, one of the first semi-automatic pistols, the FN/Browning Hi Power and the Browning Automatic Rifle.
The company is responsible for really legendary designs like the FN FAL, FN MAG and MINIMI, NATO-spec 7.62 and 5.56 ammunitions, the 5.7x28mm system developed for the FN P90 submachine gun and its companion sidearm, the FN Five-seveN pistol.
Here in America, FN ultimately became two divisions. FN Manufacturing in Columbia, South Carolina, produced the M240 machine gun for the U.S. Army. Then in 1998, FNH USA here in McLean, Virginia, became responsible for sales and marketing, and also for business and product development for U.S. law enforcement and consumer markets.
Last year, FN Manufacturing and FNH USA merged to become FN America. Today, we offer a full product line that includes icons like the FN SCAR, which we developed for U.S. Special Operations Command; the FN P90 personal defense weapon with bullpup design and its semi-automatic counterpart, the FN PS90 for civilian use; pistols with polymer frames like the FNS and FNX family; and full line of AR-15-style rifles and carbines.
And your readers might want to know that we still manufacture the M240, M249, M4 and M16 for the U.S. military.
TR: That’s a lot of military and law enforcement gear, but FN is strong in the consumer or commercial end too, isn’t it? What can tactical retailers expect from FN in the next year, perhaps beginning at the next SHOT Show?
Cherpes: This past spring at the NRA show we offered a preview of some of the products retailers and consumers can expect to see from us at the beginning of 2016. It’s interesting that you point to the military law enforcement end of our business because we’re developing a Military Collector’s Series.
The FN 15 Military Collector’s M4 and M16, for example, come with chrome-lined, cold hammer-forged barrels, Knights Armament rail system and a unique identification-stamped lower. The FN M249S is a semi-automatic version of our M249 SAW.
We’ll also be offering several new variations of our popular FNS striker-fired series of pistols. The first of which, the FNS-9 FDE in 9mm — FDE means flat dark earth coloration — is actually available for order now through longtime FNH USA commercial distributor, United Sporting Companies, including Ellett Brothers and Jerry’s Sports Center.
TR: A “Military Collector’s” series, I see. Does that speak to the FN vision going forward, or backward?
Cherpes: Whatever we build, our goal at FN is to give customers firearms that exceed expectations for performance, quality and durability. We’ve been proudly perfecting the tools of freedom for 126 years and continue that tradition today. For gun seekers of a higher caliber, FN builds the free world’s most battle-proven firearms. If they are good enough for our special operators, they’ve got to be good enough for even the most dedicated firearms enthusiast.
TR: When you look at the crystal ball, what part of the shooting sports is growing and how is FN working to address that sector? And do you expect growth going forward in the hunting or sport shooting or concealed carry markets?
Cherpes: Actually, we see growth and opportunity in every market in our industry. For example, consumers that buy firearms for sport shooting might also use that same firearm for hunting and personal or home protection. All of these areas overlap at some point.
Our goal as a manufacturer is to design and produce products that are of the highest quality possible so they can be used as effective tools regardless of the customer’s needs.
TR: FN spends a great deal of money and effort on elite, professional shooters. Why? How does this help the independent retailer sell guns to average consumers?
Cherpes: Our professional shooting team is just one tool we use to reach out to people [and] get our name out there. On the other hand, we get a lot of product performance feedback from them because they’re very knowledgeable shooters and we pass along their commentary to our product development teams. Our pro shooters — Joe Satterfield, Dave Sevigny and those guys — are ambassadors for the FN brand.
TR: So pro shooters are a small but essential part of the larger marketing puzzle.
Cherpes: That’s right. In addition to our shooting team, though, we have a lot of resources we dedicate to helping retail-counter staff sell our products to customers. For example, our dealer-relations team works with the dealer network to provide product and sales training. We also host special in-store sales events to help put that education into action.
We’ll soon be re-establishing our 3point5 eLearning site for dealer retail staff to become educated on our company and product line. And FN has strong dealer sales incentive programs that allow participating dealers to earn rewards for every sale of an FN product.
TR: For a European company, it must be odd to straddle two continental philosophies, in a way. In Europe, firearms ownership and use is so restricted, whereas it is quite the opposite in the U.S. How do you deal with that dichotomy?
Cherpes: There are certainly stark differences between the U.S. and European firearms markets. As the U.S. subsidiary for FN Herstal, FN America’s sole focus is on U.S. military, law enforcement and consumer markets. We leave international sales and marketing to our parent company.
TR: Mark, how much of FN’s effort is military and how much is civilian, and — with respect to the days of John Browning and other brilliant designers over the years — how much crossover is there between the two divisions?
Cherpes: FN America focuses on three separate areas of business within the U.S. — military, law enforcement and commercial or consumer. There’s quite a bit of crossover between our divisions. We regularly interact and share expertise, feedback and insight throughout the entire process of design, development and production.
In addition, FN has made a point of offering variants of our military-developed products to the consumer market. Examples include the FN SCAR, FN P90, FN Five-seveN, FNP and FNX-45 Tactical pistols, and now with the FNM249S semi-automatic M249 SAW.
TR: What’s your long-range view of firearms sales and use in the U.S.?
Cherpes: FN America is an active and supporting member of the NRA, NSSF and several other organizations dedicated to preserving citizens’ rights to keep and bear arms. As a manufacturer, our job is to continue to expand our product line with quality firearms that allow consumers to exercise that right.
We believe that the U.S. firearms market is alive and well and will continue to prosper in years to come.
TR: So what would you like to change about shooting in the U.S. and how can we get this done?
Cherpes: We’re privileged to live and work in a country where firearms ownership is a right afforded to us — and celebrated. It’s our challenge to protect that right for future generations, which means welcoming and teaching new gun owners.
As a company, FN America strives to embrace new gun owners in the right manner and provide accessible ways for them to experience our firearms culture. Some techniques we employ with new shooters during our product demos include one-on-one instruction with our experts and an introduction to firearms that are easily manageable in size and recoil. We also try to provide them with a friendly atmosphere where they feel safe to ask questions and learn.