We got the opportunity this month to sit down and virtual chat to managing director Simon Moore and head of sales and marketing Jon Hatton about the recent and less recent history of this fine old British brand.
BSA has a long and well-documented history as one of this country’s leading manufacturers of everything from motorcycles and cars to military firearms and munitions.
These days it is part of an international group that includes Gamo, and specialises in airguns.…
So the standard first question. How was the pandemic for you? Did you close?
We never closed. If this is the new normal for us, I’ll take it every day, it’s almost embarrassing. Especially in the light of reading the GTN interview with Karl Waktare where he explained that GMK had lost money during lockdown.
We’ve done astonishingly well, which has been a big surprise. At Shot Show in January, there were rumours about this virus that was coming out of China.
In February we went to the British Shooting Show, and again, people were quite rightly worried about it from a personal point of view, especially as an awful lot of our competitors are supplied from China—most of the products these days, particularly break-barrels come from there.
We’re fortunate that we’ve got a major factory here in Birmingham, but also a massive manufacturing facility in Spain, which produces all of our Gamo-branded break-barrels.
So we prepared, and the week before lockdown we started looking at what we were going to do. We had a couple of employees who we thought would be on the vulnerable list, so we instructed them to work from home, and then when the lockdown announcement came we went backwards and forwards trying to balance the safety of the employees with the continuity of the business, with—as Karl said in your interview—not knowing what the costs were going to be.
We furloughed most people. We went out and bought laptops so the design and quality team could work from home, and then in last two weeks of March, our order book went off the scale [upwards].
It just went bananas, and it has continued like that through to today, even when lockdown was eased and the government said people could go back to work. And it has to be down to one of two things.
Either airgun shooting is the only sort of shooting that people can do in their back gardens and all sorts of shooters turned to it in lockdown, or we managed to grab a huge amount of market share because we were still open for business and able to get products from Europe.
It’s our best first part of the year for five years, and June was the best month Jon and I could remember, and we’ve been here 15 and 11 years respectively—so we’re in July with a massive order book and working really hard to fulfil it.
And as I say, it’s almost embarrassing. One of the other major employers around here is Jaguar/Land Rover, and they haven’t managed even to make a car in the last four months.
And because our R&D team were able to work from home, it hasn’t even impacted on our plans going forward.
Tell us about your product range…
Between us and Gamo (and we are essentially the same company), we offer pretty much everything from an £80 Air Pistol all the way up to a £1,000 PCP rifle.
All the Gamo-branded PCPs are manufactured here, where we make PCPs for the group—under the Winchester and Daisy brands as well. Part of my role within the group is as the head of BSA UK, but also the head of product development for the whole group, so I’ve got teams in Barcelona and the US, developing products.
So just to be clear, all the disparate strands of your business are owned by…
BRS Holdings, a kind of private equity organisation, who purchased us back in 2013. They added Daisy about five years ago. The Daisy business is phenomenal, predominantly in the US, Walmart runs a special promotion every year on Daisy guns for Christmas, and we’re talking almost hundreds of thousands of Daisy Red Riders that go through the Walmart checkout in that period. It baffles the mind how much volume goes through that business.
So how much autonomy does the UK management team have to make its own decisions?
We have our key performance indicators that we have to hit for quality and performance, but other than that, the UK business and the global PCP business is pretty much determined from here. We develop BSA products, we can put requests into the Spanish R&D team to develop Gamo products specifically for the UK market, for example.
We’re cash rich, we’ve got a good healthy bank balance, so we’re not really supported in any significant way by the larger group, and so we’re allowed to get on with it.
Yes, we have to go through approvals, and there are monthly senior management team meetings, but we’re pretty much allowed to get on with it. And in fact, having those checks and balances in place helps us focus on our objectives.
Our R&D team doesn’t focus too much on our competitors. I want them to worry about our path and where we’re going, but I keep an eye on what’s going on in the market, some of which we follow and some of which we ignore.
So last year you introduced a bullpup, the Defiant. Has that matched the success of your other tried and tested brands?
No. I can tell you a story about that. The Defiant is a really good piece of engineering, let me say first up, but I didn’t want to launch a bullpup. We’ve been talking about bullpups for six or seven years, and I was like ‘no’, it’s a trend, it’s a fad.
And it really only came about because we had a really large enquiry for Saudi Arabia—we’re talking thousands of units, and that caused me to think that okay, I’ve now got some volume to recover investment. About six months before the launch, a rather sheepish R&D delegation came into my office and showed me a design.
“What’s that?” I asked. “It’s a bullpup”, they said, and it turned out they had been quietly developing one under the radar. And that’s where the name came from, it was called the Defiant, because the R&D team had defied my orders and worked on a bullpup anyway.
It’s been a good seller for us. It’s done okay in the UK, wiped its face, but the benefit has been in export. That Saudi Arabian order came through, and we’ve had repeat orders on that. Would I do it again for the UK market? Probably not. But globally it has been a very profitable model for us.
What about your international reach? Are you in all the markets you want to be?
Gamo is in 93 different countries, and that means that Jon has colleagues across the world who will sell BSA products into any of those markets for us.
BSA are in about 60 markets. We’re very well received in all of them. But people love the brand, and they see it as a prestige brand. We’re fortunate to have Gamo, which in airgun stores is a bit like a sports shop having Nike or Adidas—it’s a major brand.
One of the things the UK doesn’t get about Gamo is how big and popular it is worldwide. It’s the world’s number one airgun brand. It still produces all its own guns across the brands. Our capacity here in Birmingham is 30,000 units per year—Gamo’s is more than half a million.
The pellet factory in Barcelona makes 10 million pellets a day. When I took over the UK business 10 years ago, Gamo was very poorly represented in the UK, and we’ve massively expanded that. Our best-selling rifle in the UK has to be the Gamo Phox.
That illustrates how we can adapt things for different markets. In the US that’s known as the Urban 22, while across the rest of the world it’s called the Chacal.
Thanks to the benefits of volume that brings, we are able to bundle the whole gun so that you get a Birmingham-made PCP, you get a scope, you get a moderator, a pump and you get a bag, all for £500. We have a dedicated line here that just makes variations of that gun and it runs all day, every day.
There’s a big resonance to the BSA brand. How do you protect it and keep it alive?
We’re very precious with it, growing up in this region. Most people’s families are linked via someone who worked at the BSA factories. We’re in Armoury Road, which used to be the main hub, and produced anything and everything from Armoured Cars, Browning .30 cals, Lee Enfield Rifles, folding parachute motorcycles, rockets, fuses—you name it, it was made here.
This is the same factory that Charles De Gaulle visited, Churchill came to, Lord and Lady Docker, King George V who came and did the first test-firing across the road of the Lewis Gun.
So we’re really precious of it. We try to draw a line between being boring historians and adding a little bit of credibility to every purchase. We’ve been around since 1861, so it’s important that we go on about it a little bit.
Steven Knight, the writer and creator of Peaky Blinders, knows Jon very well, because a lot of the Peaky Blinders stories are taken from our history. Steven’s got a real passion for BSA’s history, brand and company, and he pops in a lot. He’s told us that many of the storylines in Peaky Blinders were from his mother’s memories as a child and working on the production line at BSA.
But to the same extent, we can’t rest on the laurels of the past. When I came into the business, everything was living in the past: the product range, the way we went to market, the way we engaged with the public.
There was less care about ‘now’ and ‘today’ than there was about the past. There was almost an attitude of ‘we’ll get this 90 per cent of the way, and then the rest we’ll get away with, because we’re BSA’.
I liken us now to the VW group. You’ve got Skoda, SEAT, VW, Audi and Bentley. We keep our brands at certain price points, which is why we did what we did with the Phox. That could easily have been a BSA ‘Cub’, but although the trigger’s good, it’s not a BSA trigger.
Although the stock is a nice, synthetic stock, it’s not a minelli wood stock. If we put the BSA brand on that product, it wouldn’t have changed the quality of the product, but it would have eroded the BSA brand. By having the multiple brands, we can give the market the price points it needs, while still protecting our brands.
We can basically provide any distributor globally with a one-stop shop—we can give them options at every price point.
How many are in your design team.
Globally about 25 out of a workforce of 500.
And do you have a plan of how many products you’re going to launch each year?
We don’t tend to put a number on that. We ask what the market is missing, or look at whether we need to refresh a product. We don’t want to just keep churning out new products, as that just leads to disappointment for the purchaser who as soon as they buy something that has gone out of date, or the distributor who is left with ‘old’ stock on their shelves.
Again, I draw on my automotive experience. If you look at BMW, they’ll bring out a new 3 series every seven years or so. In between they’ll tweak what they’ve got, so a model with a new bumper, an advanced navigation system, but essentially the same car.
Because that’s what I know, that’s what we tend to do too. We’ve got a very big year next year in terms of new models, I can’t tell you much about it now. And with all the uncertainty currently surrounding shows, our big strategic decision for 2021 is when we will launch this major new product.
We’ve saved quite a bit of cash by not attending exhibitions. Obviously, by the time you’ve set up your booth and paid for all your staff to attend, it can cost a lot of money.
I don’t know what will happen going forward. I know someone who designs booths and stands, and all his competitors have gone to the wall, because it all just stopped one day and got turned into a hospital.
But we do miss them—there’s nothing like getting our products directly into the hands of our customers who can try them out there and then. Again, back when I started and some of our products weren’t so great, the shows were tough, but that was about the customers being able to tell us what they wanted. I’m not quite sure how we could replace that.
We actually have launched one product since lockdown— the Gamo Swarm, which is a multi-shot break-barrel. We’re the only company that makes one; it is groundbreaking, almost creating a new subcategory between break-barrels and PCPs.
The fact that you can break the barrel and load it up with ten rounds is great. We were all sceptical about how the traditional trade would accept them. And we can’t build enough—they’re absolutely flying. It’s been a great launch, without having a show…
It’s not just in the UK that we’ve been doing well either; this is a global phenomenon. In the US our biggest competitor is Crossman, who can’t get product out of China. We were told 10 weeks ago by Amazon and Walmart that they had block-booked all the container capacity coming out of China to make sure their products would be delivered.
So although the factories in China are getting back to normal, the transport capacity has been taken by Amazon and Walmart. When Trump was elected, gun sales in the US slowed down, because people thought that nothing was going to change.
The NRA were happy and so there was a status quo, but with the pandemic they’ve got back into the mindset of ‘we need to buy a gun’, and they’re queuing round the block to buy all sorts of weapons.
At the moment it’s Gamo that are doing well there. Walmart has something like 14 slots in each store for airguns, and between Gamo and Daisy we occupy 10 of them right now. There are 3,500 Walmart stores, and so our numbers are just off the scale.
And that brings us further advantages—so when we need the tooling for a new synthetic stock, that might cost us £200,000, but off the back of that volume we can afford to do that when others can’t.
One other phenomenon we’ve noticed is that some of our smaller accounts have shifted their business model—gone online or whatever—and transformed the amount they have been selling.
Ironically, some of our larger accounts, who perhaps haven’t felt quite the same urgent need to change, have not been showing that same uplift. So it’s the smaller accounts that have been winning. And we’re just happy that we could support them in doing that.
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