Inside Colt: A Series Begins

posted on May 25, 2011
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It’s been at least 15 years since I last visited the Colt factory, but it might as well have been a lifetime. Three (or is it four?) presidents came in and outin the interim before a stellar Marine grabbed the reins of Colt and put his spurs into the faltering stallion.

When I was last in Hartford some 15 years ago, the factory floor seethed with resentment from the worst strike in Connecticut history (according to "The Hartford Courant") but the acrimony has long since healed and the plant is humming with new CNC equipment and an enthusiastic workforce, in large measure due to the leadership of one man.

Everyone from polishers to assemblers to machinists to secretaries attribute Colt’s remarkable turnaround to retiredLt. Gen. William M. Keys (USMC). The 73-year-old three-star general simply inspires people.

“It’s not anything you can pin down. There’s just something about him that makes you want to please him,” said Dennis Veilleux, vice president and COO of Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC.

“You just don’t want to let the General down,” agreed M1911 assembler Lewis A. DeLuca, a 48-year Colt veteran.

Such is the nature of a true leader. During his 34-year career as a Marine Corps officer, Keys served two tours in Vietnam and commanded at every level of operational command from platoon to division. He was awarded the Navy Cross and Silver and Bronze stars, the latter with a Combat “V” for valor, andhe served as the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Division, during Desert Storm.

Keys came aboard Colt’s Mfg. Co. as president and CEO in 1999, but in 2002, the company split into two separate legal entities, a government-sales entity (Colt Defense LLC) and a commercial-sales entity (Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC). The General, as he’s called, served as the leader of both companies until October 2010 when he stepped down as president and CEO of Colt Defense. He still runs the helm at Colt’s Mfg. Co., but was replaced at Colt Defense by Gerald R. Dinkel.

I was unable to interview the General during my visit as he was away from the plant at the time, however, I’ve requested a telephone interview for an upcoming Insider profile of this remarkable man.

Meanwhile, the Insider would be out of character if I did not probe into the background of Colt’s current ownership situation, which is complicated. First, it’s misleading to refer to “Colt” as if it’s a single entity. As noted, it’s two separate companies—Colt Defense LLC, a defense oriented business and Colt’s Mfg. Co. LLC, a commercially focused business. These are two separate, yet affiliated, legal entities, both of which are owned by private equity investors.

For Colt Defense LLC, the largest is Sciens Management LLC (54 percent), followed by a fund advised by The Blackstone Group (24 percent), and then CSFB SP III Investments LP (9 percent). Donald Zilhka and John P. Rigas, jointly owned Colt outright on my last visit 15 years ago. At that time, Rigas and Zilhka spun off Colt’s intellectual property—the priceless brand name and trademarks—into New Colt Holdings, which has granted an exclusive 20-year license to Colt Defense LLC and Colt’s Mfg. Co. for the use of Colt’s brands and other intellectual property.

Byzantine is perhaps too strong of a word to describe Colt’s ownership, but it’s not far off. That said, Colt is on the right road after over a decade of leadership under Gen. Keys. In my next exclusive report from Hartford, I’ll tell you more about the inner workings of Colt.

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