by Jeff Johnston - Wednesday, August 9, 2017
“To be the best run, most respected business in America, for the benefit of our Customers.” —MidwayUSA vision statement
I wanted to be a millionaire by age 40, then retire so I could hunt and fish all the time,” recalled MidwayUSA founder and CEO Larry Potterfield from his office desk in Columbia, Mo. Barely an adult at the time he declared this goal, the young Potterfield, like so many of us, was perhaps a little naive. You see, 40 years after starting his company in 1977, he is still working, albeit with plenty of time taken for hunting and fishing trips around the world. But as literature from midwayusa.com, his wife Brenda and Larry himself reveal, a successful business doesn’t just start up and run itself. It all began in rural Missouri, on the outskirts of a town called Ely, population 26.
Larry Wayne Potterfield was born in 1949 to Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert “Bert” Potterfield. One of six children, he grew up hunting and fishing in the game-rich hills of eastern Missouri, not far from Mark Twain’s Mississippi River. He took his first duck at age 9 and his first quail at 13 after being given a 16-ga. Stevens single-shot by his older brother Marion for Christmas. It was during that time that Larry developed his hunting skills and a keen nose for adventure. After graduating from high school, Potterfield attended Hannibal-LaGrange College and later the University of Missouri, where three life-changing events happened: he met his wife and confidant Brenda; he developed a passion for skeet shooting; and he studied business administration, accounting and, to a lesser extent, computers, before earning his first degree.
Weeks after graduating, the newly wed Potterfields moved to Lackland Air Base in Texas after Larry enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. After a transfer to Blytheville Air Force Base in Arkansas, Larry helped establish and run the base’s rod and gun club—mainly so he could shoot skeet. In doing so he acquired a Federal Firearms License that allowed him to deal in guns and ammunition. He finished his six-year military stint in Rapid City, S.D., where he rose to the rank of first lieutenant. In addition to teaching him life and business skills, his service experience stoked his desire to open a gun shop and work for himself. Although an ardent hunter, he noticed that most local gun shops around the country catered to hunters. To be different, he wanted to cater to shooters, while also providing wares for outdoorsmen.
In 1977, with 3-year-old son Russell and infant daughter Sara strapped into the family car, the Potterfields trekked back to Missouri. Plunking down $30,000 in cash and equity from their gun collections to combine with a $50,000 bank loan, Larry and younger brother Jerry built a 1,600-sq.-ft. metal building/retail storefront outside their hometown of Ely on Old Highway 40 near the “Midway” exit. They named the store Ely Arms, Inc., and began selling guns—mainly used ones from their personal collections.
With an eye ever-peeled for a deal, Larry discovered he could get .30 Remington ammunition really inexpensively; and from his days learning how to reload from his neighbor and Guns & Ammo writer George Spence, he had an idea. With a few borrowed tools and a giant can of elbow grease, Ely Arms happened upon a niche market when the brothers began converting the .30 Rem. into 8 mm Nambu pistol ammunition and selling it for a decent profit. (Larry’s cousin Charlie had one of the old Japanese Nambu pistols that G.I.s had liberated from the Pacific theatre during World War II, but like most everyone else stateside, he had no ammunition for it.)
Larry’s gamble worked, and with the help of advertisements placed in The Shotgun News and some creative sourcing for ammunition boxes, by 1980 Ely began selling the ammunition as fast as it could be shipped, mainly by mail order to dealers.
But with their modest success also came a letter from the attorneys of the Eley Ltd. division of the Kynoch Ammunition Co. demanding the brothers cease using the similar name. So the Potterfields quickly changed their brand name to Midway Arms and kept on rolling, save for the subsequent departure of Jerry, who sold his shares of the company to Larry and Brenda before moving back to the family farm.
Soon, even modest demand for 8 mm Nambu and .30 Rem. ammunition outpaced Midway’s supply when brass became scarce. So Larry set out to find cases and formed a relationship with California manufacturing company Starline Brass. Starline thought .357 brass cases were a much more viable product than the Nambu, however, and the Potterfields agreed—to the tune of a 200,000-piece purchase order. They began selling the Midway-stamped brass cases in bulk to dealer-customers all over the United States. It was enough to make Winchester, and soon thereafter Remington, recognize the growing market for bulk reloading components. In 1984, Midway placed an order for $1 million in unprimed Winchester brass. The purchase required additional warehouse space, and because mail order sales now dominated Midway’s business anyway, Brenda and Larry decided to close down the retail storefront. It would prove to be a sage decision, because in 1987, after the NRA-backed Firearm Owners Protection Act passed Congress, Midway seized the opportunity and immediately began selling components directly to consumers by mail order. (Midway would later become known as the godfather of the bulk component/reloading business.) The company was rolling.
Meanwhile, with profits in excess of $5 million and the business gaining speed like a riverboat in the rapids, Larry recalled his computer training courses from college. His purchase of the company’s first PC and printer—for around $10,000—brought Midway into the digital networking world. It was this trend—Potterfield’s forward-thinking vision in streamlining his business operations and processes—that would prove to be a key component in Midway’s future exponential growth.
Another would be Midway’s dedication to customer service, quality management practices and its hiring practices that reflect the values of his own family.
Life At MidwayUSA
“We’re a family-owned business with strong vision and values,” Larry said. “We’re focused on our customers and employees, with long-term support for the NRA.”
In researching this article, I called MidwayUSA’s customer service number and asked for Larry Potterfield.
“Sir, Mr. Potterfield is away at the NRA Annual Meetings in Atlanta this week, but you can email him at email@example.com.”
This honesty, from a customer service associate at a multi-million dollar company, surprised me. My call had been a test; I knew that Larry was, in fact, in Atlanta. I didn’t expect to get his email address.
“Do you like working for Midway?” I probed, without asking for the associate’s name so he could answer honestly.
“Yes, I love it.”
“I like to hunt and shoot, and we get a membership to the range, and discounts, plus the benefits are good and the workers are nice. It’s a great place to work.”
“Have you ever seen Larry around the office?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Usually several times per week.”
I called again and spoke to another employee. I heard the same thing. And that says a lot.
Currently the employee satisfaction and engagement rate according to Midway’s internal surveys is above 80 percent—well ahead of the national curve. One of Midway’s stated goals for 2017 is to improve it to 84 percent.
“I used to become dissatisfied when I couldn’t get employees to actually write down their job descriptions,” Larry said, “so I hired a former military guy from the Inspector General’s office. Among other things, he recommended I attend a two-day Malcolm Baldrige business forum. So I did.”
To say the experience impacted Potterfield is like saying MidwayUSA sells a few bullets.
Malcolm Baldrige, Jr., served as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Ronald Reagan. Regarded as one of the great business leaders of any era, he streamlined international trade practices, busted monopolies and reduced the federal budget by 30 percent by simply increasing government’s efficiency. He was perhaps the country’s greatest advocate of quality management practices. Subsequently, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for the best-run businesses in the United States was named in his honor shortly after his premature death in 1987. The award, or standard, is decided by a panel that scrutinizes every facet of companies’ adherence to Baldrige’s prerequisite criteria that include the following: leadership, strategy, customers, measurement analysis and knowledge, management, workforce, operations and results.
In 1997, Larry took interest in Baldrige’s business management standards, and in 2003, he and Brenda set out to win the award that is given annually to only five U.S. businesses by the president of the United States.
“I think my three best business moves,” Potterfield said when I pressed him, “were first, staying married to Brenda for 47 years; second, getting our two kids—Russell and Sara—involved in the business; and three, engaging the Baldrige National Quality Award criteria.
In 2009, MidwayUSA won the Baldrige award. Larry, along with his senior staff and family, accepted the prestigious award in Washington, D.C. “Winning the first Baldrige award is probably my single best memory of running MidwayUSA,” Potterfield said. “It’s something like making it to the NCAA Basketball Final Four.”
If that wasn’t enough, Midway did something that made itself elite, even among top businesses, when it applied for and won the award again in 2015. And as anyone who has ever tried to run a business knows, it wasn’t easy.
“Building a great team of employees is more important than most folks imagine,” Potterfield said, “and more difficult.”
During the hiring process, each candidate is given a sheet containing MidwayUSA’s culture statement listing 38 values that employees are encouraged to follow. Number 16 reads: “Supporting America, the NRA, and the 2nd Amendment.”
Indeed, assembling a stellar team from members who individually align with the company’s stated values is what the Potterfields have systematically done, and in doing so they have hedged for their company’s future.
“Matt Fleming is our company president; he leads the senior leadership team in all day-to-day activities,” Potterfield said. “But there are many more long-term employees here who have contributed significantly to the company’s success.”
When asked how to create a successful business, Potterfield offered the following:
“Figure out how to make a profit honestly, and never cheat to win,” he said. But he also returned to one key theme: customers.
While accolades validate MidwayUSA accomplishments in terms of management, Brenda and Larry attest that Midway’s secret to success has been its customer service; they’ve always strived to provide customers with what they want in a timely and affordable manner. To that, I can attest.
I remember back in 2001, when I wanted to mount a red-dot optic on my Ruger Mark II pistol, but I didn’t want to send it off to have it drilled and tapped for a mount. So I perused the MidwayUSA website, and by merely inputting a few keywords—something fairly new then—several options for a tap-less scope mount to fit the rear dovetail of my Ruger popped up. I was amazed. Where else could I have found that? I think I paid $19, and I was delighted when it arrived on my doorstep in just a couple days via extremely low-cost shipping. I didn’t know it at the time, but essentially, MidwayUSA was like amazon.com before Amazon sold anything except books.
Today, MidwayUSA sells over 125,000 unique shooting, hunting, gunsmithing, reloading and outdoor products to customers all over the world. You’ve probably seen Larry on TV actually using his products to tinker on guns. MidwayUSA sells everything from unprimed brass to Under Armour hunting boots, optics, freeze-dried food, gun grips and everything in between. There’s always a flash sale going on. Did you know it even provides free downloadable targets on its website?
Perhaps most impressive, the 480-employee company maintains a 93-percent customer satisfaction rate—according to customer surveys. Still, another 2017 company goal is to improve that figure to 94 percent. This is why Potterfield believes Midway is successful. (Its board of directors thinks the satisfaction rate is 100 percent, thanks to double-digit growth every year for the past decade.)
“Serving customers has always been the most satisfying part of the business; providing good jobs for employees and helping them grow is a close second,” he said. But that’s not all MidwayUSA does to ensure its future success.
Giving Back To The Shooting Sports
In an age when political correctness is consuming the country, and many retailers are afraid to sell shooting supplies, Midway’s role as a consumer forum for freedom through its quality products is critical now more than ever.
The Potterfields have been fortunate enough to employ a full-time professional whose sole job is to determine the best charitable recipient of half of the Potterfields’ annual salary derived from MidwayUSA. That charity of choice is almost always a shooting, conservation and/or youth organization. Currently the MidwayUSA Foundation supports more than 50 youth shooting programs, and its youth shooting fund is endowed with $100 million. In the next 40 years, this money and the opportunities it gives to young people to introduce and keep them in the shooting sports may be one of our cause’s saving graces. If your child’s school has a shooting program or scholarship, there’s a good chance the MidwayUSA Foundation supports it.
Yet Midway’s commitment to the Second Amendment extends further than helping provide opportunities for youth, but also to the NRA for its programs and political causes. In 1992 Larry began the NRA Round-Up program that asks Midway customers if they’ll round up their order total to the nearest dollar; if they agree—most do—the change is placed in an account, and each year a check is written to the NRA. To date, the NRA Round-Up program has generated $17 million to the NRA for vital programs.
Have you been to a Friends of NRA event? Larry started that in Missouri in 1992. Since then, these fun auction-events have raised $740 million. As you can see, MidwayUSA, is a very dear friend indeed to the NRA’s mission and to freedom-loving Americans everywhere.
The Potterfields have stood steadfast for freedom for decades. “The Potterfields’ pioneering efforts with the Friends of NRA program, the Round-Up program and their marquee sponsorships of numerous NRA Annual Meetings over the years have been invaluable to our noble cause and Association,” said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. “Larry and Brenda have made an indelible impact on our country by their immeasurable generosity. The 5 million men and women of the NRA are truly grateful for all their efforts.”
Midway In 40 More
While the company has experienced huge success, certainly Larry’s made a few mistakes along his 40-year experiment in business. “My first mistake was probably locating the original gun shop outside the city limits, requiring customers to come to us, rather than our going to the customers,” he said. “Another mistake was too much investment in obsolete cartridges in the early 1980s, and another was the acquisition of the Fajen and Bishop gunstock companies in the 1990s.”
Successful businesspeople, however, learn from their mistakes, and that’s why Brenda and Larry have confidence that MidwayUSA will thrive for many more years. The crystal ball sure looks as if the company is in good shape, with many talented employees and managers, many of whom are capable of running the company when Larry and Brenda eventually retire.
“We have it all now—we take lots of time to hunt, to travel, for family and work in between those events,” Brenda said. “So we’re doing what most people do when they retire already.” In fact, in 2015 Larry wrote a book of short stories about his myriad adventures across the globe hunting, fishing and shooting with friends and family.
“We’re a family business, and MidwayUSA is the family’s largest investment; so we think about my involvement a bit differently than if it were just a job,” said Larry. “There is no ‘set date’ for me to retire; just the understanding that it’s inevitable, with continuous planning to help make a smooth transition.”
As for Brenda, she’s a passionate turkey hunter who enjoys hanging with her kids and grandkids. In 2016, she, her daughter Sara and her granddaughter Eliza each killed a buck on the same day. She plans many more days like this, in addition to her work with the MidwayUSA Foundation.
So where do the Potterfields see Midway in another 40 years? “If we want to continue to provide opportunities to our employees, we have to continue to grow,” Brenda said.
“I envision a young boy or girl right now, who has been raised right, who will probably go to college on a shooting scholarship; he or she will emerge and lead MidwayUSA into the next era and continue to support the Second Amendment rights of all Americans along the way.”
As for the company, it’s planning a little celebration back in Columbia—an open house and a few employee shindigs. A 40th anniversary book is at the publisher’s at the time of this writing. Business is rolling.
As for the rest of us, the next time you need a shooting or hunting product—perhaps some 8 mm Nambu or, better yet, a new reloading press—peruse MidwayUSA’s website, then round up for the NRA. That way we can celebrate Midway’s first 40 years and our unique American freedoms—all at the same time.
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