May 31, 2023
Long known as the heartland of American firearms manufacturing, the Connecticut River Valley once counted Colt, Remington, Savage Arms, Smith & Wesson, Sturm, Ruger & Co., Winchester and others among the residents. Today, many of those revered gunmakers have moved to friendlier political climates in the southern United States. Among them, though, Savage stands out.
Arthur Savage’s gunmaking enterprise began in 1894 in Utica, New York. By way of purchasing Stevens Arms of Chicopee, Massachusetts, Savage established a foothold in “Gun Valley.” Beyond building its own line of products, such as the Model 1899 lever-action, Savage was an active participant in America’s wartime efforts. It built Lewis machineguns in World War I and an array of armaments during World War II such as the No. 4 Lee-Enfield lend-lease rifles for the Brits and most of the .45-caliber Thompson submachineguns that saw action.
Postwar, much of Savage’s manufacturing operations were consolidated, first to the old Stevens facility in Chicopee, and finally to the company’s current factory in Westfield, Massachusetts, around 1960. During this time, the Model 110 bolt-action rifle became a staple of Savage’s catalog but, like most gunmakers in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the firm had to dabble in consumer markets beyond firearms to fill its production capacity and keep the lights on.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Savage received a real shot of energy and renewed purpose, which came from the dynamic owner and CEO, Ron Coburn. During his 25-year tenure, the company established a new identity based on accuracy, reliability, value and innovation. A credit to his leadership, Savage was identified by conglomerate ATK (later, Vista Outdoor) as a strong complement to its burgeoning ammunition empire, anchored by Federal Premium and CCI. The ATK acquisition of Savage, although ultimately short-lived, injected the capital needed to retool and refurbish the Westfield operations center.
Coburn’s most lasting contribution, though, was the people he assembled at Savage. From the engineers who designed the Accutrigger, and who continue to work on the next Accu-innovation, to the machinists and assemblers that make designs reality, to the management team and everyone in between, there is an undeniable passion for the brand and its hometown. Evidence of that passion came when, in 2019, company leadership and investors purchased Savage Arms from Vista Outdoor and returned it to private ownership. Since then, they have held fast to their legacy while continuing to innovate. With the support of the Westfield community, they have kept gunmaking alive near the banks of the Connecticut River.
Commitment To Culture
Sited beside a railroad, the factory’s exterior offers all the grandeur of post-war construction: It’s weatherworn, workmanlike and, above all, brick. Clearly, Savage Arms would not be defined by its façade, but by the people within.
As a senior magazine editor, I’ve had the privilege of visiting most of New England’s major gunmaking plants, and it is not unusual to meet multiple generations of employee families working together on the production floor. What is unusual, especially in today’s leadership-for-hire climate, is meeting senior executives and managers who buck the transient trend and build decades of experience with the same company. Surprisingly, that is exactly what I found during Guns & Ammo’s Summer 2022 tour of the Savage Arms factory. CEO Al Kasper has been with Savage for 26 years. Dave Piancentini, CFO, has been there 25 years. Chris Bezzina, COO, 15 years, and his college-age son was interning at the plant during our visit. Guiding us around the shop floor was Wayne Kratochvil, the senior materials supervisor who has been at Savage for an astounding 38 years. More incredible yet, Kasper and Kratochvil both confirmed that there are employees with 50 years of service.
Also unusual was the lightness of the atmosphere. It was 90 degrees outside and even hotter on the production floor. As is common for the region, much of the plant is not climate controlled so, during unseasonable hot days, it can get pretty spicy. Still, the workers seemed to take it in stride. They cut loose on their extended cool-down breaks and eagerly returned to their stations to meet the day’s goals. The sense of camaraderie was palpable. I saw young assemblers and machinists take their questions, and jokes, to the factory’s esteemed “gray hairs.” In return, the seasoned operators offered smiles, chiding glances, and humor of their own, along with wisdom borne from years, and decades, of experience.
This kind of community doesn’t just happen, of course. It takes trust, commitment and unity of purpose. Kasper has been a good steward in these regards, investing in the people that make the factory hum. You would never know it without asking, but Savage Arms is a union shop, and a damn fine one. Far from the antagonistic relationship some owners and managers have with the employees, Savage regularly exceeds its contractual obligations in terms of compensation and benefits. The result is a warm (temperature aside) and inviting atmosphere.
A nod to Kasper’s experience for developing that culture: “When I got here, it was an intense place to work,” Kasper said. “I had come from a company that had 1,100 employees, and now it has zero. I saw how the union [versus] management dynamic could ruin a company. We changed that.” Gesturing to the factory floor, Kasper continued, “Our most important assets are the people out there. Team Savage.”
To build on that team mentality, the company encourages its employees to take advantage of unique benefit: Staff range days. Kasper related a story from early in his time with Savage when Coburn had chastised him for working at a gun company but not being a shooter. The result was not just an education for the then-head-of-finance, but the start of a new company tradition. Every Wednesday at a local gun club, any employee can go and shoot two rounds of trap and receive firearms instruction. Savage provides the guns, ammunition and covers the range fees. There are also large employee events focused on teaching safe gun handling and familiarizing employees with the company’s entire lineup of products.
Savage now has more than 600 employees, and its “People First” philosophy extends beyond the walls of Westfield. While touring the plant with Kratochvil, the production floor honcho proffered a story 25 years in the making:
Decades ago, Savage partnered with a small, family-run laser-engraving operation that was a one-man, one-machine business. Since then, the shop has grown to having 15 laser-engraving machines and the man’s sons help run the business. This local vendor remains Savage’s go-to partner for laser work. In 25 years, Katochvil said that they have never raised the prices for Savage orders. The gunmaker has made a point to support local small businesses, and the community supports Savage right back.
On the sales side, the company has focused on meeting the customers wherever they are. To Kasper, that means delivering the products customers want in as close to real time as possible. When he first started, Savage was taking 16 to 18 weeks to fill orders. Today, turnaround time is 2 to 3 days.
The key for Savage is the use of agile, mixed manufacturing in flexible cells. In a given day, the shop floor may produce 400 different SKUs of firearms, including 20 different chamberings. The production lot sizes are often 10 guns or less. Although it may seem a bit hectic, the customer-centric philosophy has helped Savage win at the gun store counter. Where other manufacturers may have gaps of weeks or months between large production runs for a given model, Savage customers can get what they want within a few days of placing the order.
Today, the company’s capabilities are only increasing. Walking the floor with Kratochvil, he told me that just a few days before, several of the machining cells — dozens of CNC machines — had been physically moved and rearranged to increase efficiency, and there were more moves planned. Speaking about the company’s commitment to automation and to bringing more technology in-house, Kasper confirmed, “If you come here a year from now, the facility will look completely different.” One example is the addition of 3D metal printing, a capability Savage has invested in and is learning to harness. Kasper added, “Soon we won’t need to be cutting metal; we’ll be growing it.”
Savage’s success is a credit to the people building the products and a leadership approach focused on building the people. “What I’m most proud of,” said Kasper, “is seeing all these employees prosper. Seeing their kids go to college, seeing them buying homes and driving nice cars, and not worrying about if they’ll have a job tomorrow.” Beyond that, he was proud of the culture that allowed employees to stay and grow with the company. “Out there, I have 30 5-year guys, I have 20 10-year guys, seven or eight 20-year guys, and I’ve got a 50-year guy. That’s the true measurement of success.”
In Westfield, Massachusetts, Savage proves that American gunmaking is alive and well in the heart of Gun Valley, and will be for generations to come.
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