Graham Turner doesn’t really have a typical day. “It can certainly be very varied,” he says. “I’m responsible for looking at the products that we decide to offer, how we market them, develop them with the manufacturer, promote and sell them. No two days the same.”
This multi-faceted role can have Graham flying out to meet international manufacturers one day, and dealing with the technical nitty-gritty of a product return the next. He’s a methodical man who tends to answer questions with lists. Every job breaks down into smaller jobs, to be counted off, understood and accomplished. Behind this tendency there’s a very simple principle at work: whatever the task at hand, you should do whatever you can to ensure it’s done properly. It’s a principle that’s standing Viking Arms in good stead, as the company seems to be sailing straight through the crosswinds that have buffeted the gun trade of late.
“It’s all about having the right product, forward thinking manufacturers and decent marketing on our side,” Graham explains. “Being a forward thinking company; a proactive company.”
One way Viking achieves that forward-thinking reputation is by looking at the international situation as a barometer for coming UK trends. “We spend a lot of time in both Europe and the United States with our manufacturers,” says Graham. “If you look in those directions you get a picture of what’s a bit further down the line for us.”
Of course, the main reason for spending all that time abroad is to get the right product. This is one of the places where Graham’s comprehensive and rigorous approach is really in evidence. “There’s a lot of thought and time that goes into the process before we come to any agreement with a manufacturer,” he says. “We’re very careful what we add to the portfolio. Our latest agreement, which we’ve had for a little while now, is Leupold, as everybody knows.
“We’ve seen a lot of brands come and go. We say ‘no’ to an awful lot more than we say ‘yes’ to. It has to be a product that will be successful in the UK market. You’ve got to dig down deep, look at whether the manufacturer can meet demand, the details of importing, any problems with returns, the marketing support on offer. There’s an awful lot of thought that goes into the decision.”
Leupold isn’t the only optics brand in the Viking portfolio – they’ve got Meopta too. I asked if there was any issue keeping competing brands in the same stable.
“We don’t place one against the other,” says Graham. “Both companies have different backgrounds. Obviously Meopta is quite a traditional European company. Leupold, although they’re a similar age to Meopta, are an American company. They place their focus very much on their US heritage so the whole image of both companies is very different. They both make fantastic products.
“We don’t ever say ‘Meopta or Leupold’. It’s ‘Meopta and Leupold’. We don’t need to play one against the other. Why not stock both? There’s not many dealers in this country that stock just one brand of scope.
“We give both equal support. We think they’re fantastic companies. Very different in the way they operate and their make-up, but we have a lot of confidence in both brands. Going forward I’m sure that both brands will grow within the UK and globally also.”
Viking Arms are a company that love the brands they work with, and as proud shooters themselves, they’re in a position to really scrutinise what they’re buying. They’ve got game shooters, deer stalkers, competitive rifle shooters and expert clay shooters among there number. “We all use our own own products.” says Graham. “We all shoot Merkels, Marocchi shotguns, Rugers. We all use Meopta and Leopold optics and Lapua ammunition.
“My own background is like lots of people in the shooting industry. I started out shooting an air rifle on the local farm nearly 40 years ago. From there it goes on to working at the local clay club, to be invited beating, and it develops from there.”
Graham relates how he cut his business teeth in the retail sector of the shooting industry: “I was was working for a busy retailer, Gilsan Sports, who had several branches. I attended all the various game fairs and such, so I got a really good insight into the industry.” I’m interested to know how the things differed after Graham moved into distribution. He chooses to ring the changes rather than claim a radical dissimilarity between the two types of business:
“Obviously within distribution you have a smaller customer base, but it is a more regular customer base. You don’t get so many of the on-off purchases that happen in retail; you tend to build more of a relationship with your customers on the distribution side, which enables you to get to know people and what they want. But it has the same problems as retail, it’s just one one step further along the chain.
“Personally I’m not involved in the sales side. When I first joined Viking I was in sales. I was looking after the field sales, initially covering the whole of the UK and Ireland, which involved an awful lot of miles. These days we have a lot of guys that cover field sales.
“Now I’m the product manager my focus has shifted slightly. Not entirely – everyone who works at Viking Arms technically works in sales. We’re all here to sell the product, otherwise none of us would have a job.”
That’s certainly a principle that’s evident in Viking’s extensive marketing strategy. The company has a dedicated marketing team and is active through social media. On the other hand they don’t seem to be as visible on the show circuit as they have in the past. Perhaps the company, like some others, has chosen to refocus its efforts on dedicated trade days – but Graham rejects the idea.
“We’ve still exhibited at a lot of shows,” he says. “There seems to be a trend within the industry: the way the game fairs work now seems to be very different in terms of the buying from the end user. That’s probably down to the internet, I’d guess.
“We certainly haven’t stepped away from the main public fairs. We’re not exhibiting at the next British Shooting Show as Viking Arms. Viking Arms to the end user is just a group of companies that they know. The brands will be at the British Shooting Show, but they will be with retailers.
“We’ll be there, we’re just doing it a slightly different way. We’ll be with our distributors, with Meopta, Leopold, Merkel, Ruger, but not on one umbrella stand as we have been previously. We will go back to that way; this is just how we’re doing it this time.”
This decision is mostly down to other calendar commitments on the law enforcement side of the business. Viking don’t like to do things they can’t fully commit to, and are happy to take a supporting role when appropriate. Another big fixture for them next year will be their biennial invitation-only trade day.
“We take over a fantastic country house hotel up here in North Yorkshire,” Graham says. “All our manufacturers attend, all our products are there, and all our retailers can come along to talk to the manufacturers and us. They can try the products and there’s some fantastic deals. We look after them and put on a big dinner. It’s a really good event, quite unique in the industry. Everyone that attends always comments about how much they enjoyed it, but also about how the got great deals and learned about the product.”
There’s plenty more coming up for Viking: new products in the pipeline to be unveiled at the IWA and SHOT shows, and a major redesign of their head office. But we’ll leave the final word to Graham: “However many years I’ve been in this industry, I’ve learned something every single day. I think that’s key. You’ve got to be open to learn. If you think that you know the industry, you know it all, then you really shouldn’t be in it.”