What Makes BLACKHAWK! Tick?

Since its inception in the garage of Navy SEAL Mike Noell, BLACKHAWK! is now one of the largest tactical product companies in the world. We find out what it’s like to be a part of the new Vista Outdoor brand and where the company sees the tactical market heading.
What Makes BLACKHAWK! Tick?

It has one of the most memorable names in the outdoor and tactical industry. And it’s all caps with an exclamation point! Your high school English teacher would have become unreasonable seeing this on a homework assignment, but America’s consumers have rallied to BLACKHAWK! The company has developed a broad product line and shows no signs of letting up in adding products to its line.

BLACKHAWK! has grown in part because of smart, engaged management during a climate where all things “tactical” with a hint of “black ops” are suddenly cool. And let’s not forget the company’s incorporation into Alliant Techsystems.

ATK is a giant in the outdoor and tactical world but is evolving, splitting its sporting side away from the global — even orbital — defense and aerospace division to become Vista Outdoor. Independent, publicly traded, and very different companies.

According to a January ATK press release, Vista will “design, manufacture and market consumer products in the growing outdoor sports and recreation markets” from its headquarters in Utah. With approximately 5,800 employees in the U.S. and around the world, Vista reported pro forma 2014 sales of $2.3 billion.

Well-known brands included under the Vista umbrella are Federal Premium, Bushnell, Savage Arms, BLACKHAWK!, Primos, Uncle Mike’s, Hoppe’s, RCBS, Alliant Powder, CCI, Speer, Champion Targets, Final Approach, Gold Tip Arrows, Weaver Optics, Outers, Bolle, Cebe and Serengeti.

Tactical Retailer sat down with energetic BLACKHAWK! Brand Director Chuck Buis to ask about this corporate evolution, how corporate developments will affect the BLACKHAWK! brand and what the business people in tactical and sporting goods can expect in the future.

TR: Chuck, your experience in tactical and consumer sporting goods is deep and impressive. Will you review it for us?

Buis: I was director of law enforcement for Michaels of Oregon (Uncle Mike’s) for 10 years, from 1993 to 2003, before I moved to BLACKHAWK! Of course it was Blackhawk Products Group then, but at Michael’s I was in charge of company efforts in the law enforcement market including all sales, product development, marketing and media relations. I also supervised three regional managers and five independent rep groups with 26 reps.

In 2003 I went to work for Blackhawk as senior product marketing manager and have been with the company through several management and corporate changes. In the spring of 2010, ATK bought the renamed BLACKHAWK!, and I became brand manager in 2012.

TR: What does a “brand manager” do?

Buis: I direct the efforts of individual product marketing managers across all of the BLACKHAWK! lines. I coordinate their work with product development staff and our overall marketing activities, ensuring these align with corporate goals.

TR: How does BLACKHAWK! cope with such a diverse line? I mean, you manage everything from bright red bags for EMS responders to tactical flashlights to sledges and battering rams.

Buis: As I said, we have dedicated product managers for each division. One guy, for instance, does nothing but holsters, belts and duty gear. There are two people for boots, apparel and protective gear — goggles, gloves, kneepads and so on. And one guy for tactical nylon and knives.

TR: Doesn’t that make BLACKHAWK! more of a distributor than a manufacturer?

Buis: No, we make our own stuff. The factory in Manhattan, Montana, specializes in injection molding, although they do some metal machining and assembly there. Other stuff is spread through Vista’s diverse facilities. Dynamic entry tools, back-up iron sights and metal machining, for example, in Oroville, California. Warehouse and assembly operations are located in Meridian, Idaho.

TR (looking at map of the U.S.): Manhattan, Montana? I can’t find it on the map. That’s got to be a pretty small place for such a big business.

Buis: It’s 20 miles northwest of Bozeman. The day we opened the factory we immediately became the biggest employer in town.

TR: Chuck, BLACKHAWK! is now part of Vista Outdoor, an ATK spinoff. What does Vista bring to the table? What do you expect to result from being part of Vista other than access to deep pockets, for instance, and maybe more corporate bureaucracy?

Buis: Deep pockets are important when you’re trying to expand your product offering. Here’s an example.

We used to work in a 17,000-square-foot factory in Bozeman, but we needed more space. We’d grown to the point where we were bursting at the seams. We had knocked walls out several times, more than the zoning law really allowed, and the factory had kind of taken over the parking lot to the point that we needed to rent parking spaces from the company next door.

The size limited us and we needed a new facility. When we approached ATK they told us to go ahead and build one. That’s when we built a new 80,000-square-foot facility in Manhattan. Just the mezzanine of the new building is bigger than the old factory in Bozeman. Having that space allowed us to go from eight to 32 molding machines in about a six-month period.

Aside from deep pocket financial resources, Vista Outdoor has a broad distribution network. At BLACKHAWK! I could get a little attention from Cabela’s and some of the major distributors, but when ATK or Vista rolls in to talk, we meet with the senior people. Being part of a big, powerful company lends a certain gravitas to your efforts.

TR: The Blackhawk.com website says BLACKHAWK! is a “portfolio-based consumer branded products company.” What does that mean?

Buis: Essentially it means that within the ATK/Vista business sphere, we’re a division with a certain portfolio of commercial responsibilities. We’re not primarily a Defense Department global contractor, although we have that capability. We’re part of the sporting group, and that includes ammo .50-caliber and smaller ammo as well as accessories for the shooting sports and law enforcement communities.

We sell to consumers through distributors and independent dealers. Ours is a much different business model than the aerospace and defense products from ATK, which are oriented to the Defense Department. We sell, for example, through Pickett Weaponry in Newberry, Florida, or Lipsey’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Within the “old ATK,” the problem was that sporting group companies had to abide by the same rules as the aerospace and defense group, and that sometimes made things difficult. I think the move to Vista Outdoor will be very good for BLACKHAWK! because we can be more flexible, better able to customize our consumer-based business model.

TR: How do you mean?

Buis: Well, as part of Vista Outdoor we’ll be more independent, with a budget that doesn’t rely on profitability generated in the aerospace and defense sectors.

TR: So an independent retailer can use the BLACKHAWK! brand effectively?

Buis: I was in Bob’s Gun Shop in Norfolk the other day and they have 20-foot display wall just of BLACKHAWK! and they carry all the other Vista stuff, too. Bob’s belongs to a buying group that saves time and money by getting our brands into stores at the most economical price points for them.

TR: Are there any special new things you want to mention?

Buis: I just met with a distributor about two things they hadn’t noticed at SHOT.

What we call our QuickMod Magazine Cases are quick-draw magazine pouches for fast-paced competition like 3-gun matches that require shooters to very quickly, intuitively access multiple magazines for pistols and AR-15s. BLACKHAWK! QuickMod cases have a quick-detach belt attachment with 360-degree angle adjustment. They’re temperature- and crush-resistant injection-molded polymer and adjust to different belt sizes. Plus, the cant angle can be set to fixed or movable. The pistol model fits both single- and double-stack magazines with built-in tension adjustment. The AR-15 model holds most styles of 20- or 30-round AR magazines.

The other product is our new Diversion Rolling Load Out Bag. It’s a big travel duffle with a hidden, padded full-length firearm compartment. It has a muzzle pouch and retention straps so you can secure a rifle inside. It’s a discreet-looking bag with lots of webbing and loop panels to attach and organize accessories. It’s rated to 200 pounds of gear.

TR: What’s the one thing you want retailers to remember about BLACKHAWK!?

Buis: I do lots of dealer product training and I want them to remember our story.

BLACKHAWK! was founded by Mike Noell, who was a member of SEAL Team 4. Mike was in the field during the first Gulf War when his backpack failed in a minefield. He’d jumped off a rock and the pack split open along a seam. Those guys carry 100 pounds of gear, and at the time he weighed maybe 150 pounds. When the seam split a smaller bag with his night-vision goggles tumbled out and came to rest about six inches from a trip wire leading to a mine.

Anyway, examining his backpack later he realized it was a low-bid government item and decided he could do a better job of protecting himself and his buddies. When he got home he enrolled in a navy rigger’s course, one that taught how to repair gear.

Pretty soon he was taking his stuff apart and re-stitching and reinforcing it. Then he did it for his buddies, splitting seams and putting stuff back together. Pretty soon he had bought material and a heavy duty sewing machine and began actually building his own stuff, backpacks and gun cases. Things he understood from his field experience. By the time his SEAL hitch was up he was working 60 hours a week for the Navy and 60 hours on his own sewing machine, and his wife gave him an ultimatum. He decided to get out of the service and in 1993 founded Blackhawk.

His first show as Blackhawk took place at the old secret service matches at Rowell Training Center in Beltsville, Maryland, outside Washington. Actually, that’s where I met him. I remember because it was the same month I started with Uncle Mike’s and he used at table next to me. He was so broke that Bill Strang of TSSI let him use half of a 6-foot table to sell Blackhawk stuff. I think he even slept on Bill’s Holiday Inn room floor.

TR: That’s a great story, but what jump-started BLACKHAWK!?

Buis: A couple of things kicked off BLACKHAWK! Growth, and all of them have to do with military guys.

First, SWAT teams sometimes train with the military, and SWAT guys wanted the same kind of gear. That demand caused us to get dragged into the commercial market faster than we expected. And military guys getting out of the service wanted to use in their personal lives what they had in service. They asked for BLACKHAWK! because they heard it was quality stuff from somebody who had been there, and retailers started calling. I think people have become more aware and appreciative of the military.

The idea that people needed to be responsible for their own defense, for taking care of themselves and their families, spurred the tactical civilian market. Then we had the 3-gun explosion where using tactical gear gave competitors an advantage.

And there’s serendipitous stuff like Brad Thor mentioning BLACKHAWK! gear in his Scot Harvath thrillers. That attracts consumer interest, and I guess it all just came together.

TR: It’s quite a story, Chuck. Looking ahead, what’s the future of “black” and “tactical?” You mentioned the stir Uncle Mike’s created at a 1990s SHOT Show by displaying a few law enforcement items. Is the hunting market disappearing in the 21st century?

Buis: No, the hunting market is going strong, but women are the hot growth segment.

TR: So what’s next for you personally? More responsibility?

Buis: I’m having a wonderful time and yes, I have some added responsibilities. When ATK bought Bushnell, Uncle Mike’s became part of my world again, showing that God, indeed, has a sense of humor, as 11 years after leaving Uncle Mike’s I now have them again — or at least their tactical accessories. My title this week is product director for tactical accessories, so all the product managers that manage the various BLACKHAWK! and Uncle Mike’s product lines report to me.

We’re a dynamic company in a fast-changing industry. Next week, who knows!


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