Stan Piecha talks to a firearm manufacturer that puts its workforce at the centre of everything it does… American firm STI International.
The gun trade is historically blessed with craftsmen who take real pride in their tasks but this is one weapon manufacturer that can proudly boast of having some of the world’s most loyal and dedicated workers.
The reason the Georgetown, Texas company can feel ultra-confident its entire 100-plus workforce is all pulling in the same direction, has the organisation’s future uppermost in its minds each time it steps through the factory doors and never has to think twice about going the extra mile is because everyone benefits from its continued growth and success.
STI is the world’s only firearm manufacturer run under the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, ensuring every member of staff is involved and reaps the benefits of being part of a profit-sharing enterprise.
The scheme is working brilliantly for it and, while many manufacturers in the industry have been forced to trim their workforce, STI is planning to recruit more employees in a bid to keep up with its ever-increasing order book.
Top of the tree
It also helps that STI is now regarded as the maker of some of the world’s finest – and most reliable – pistols.
Although its range of 1911s has changed the face of competition shooting, it has also been a huge success with people wanting a gun designed for personal protection.
They are also prized by the military and police but, because of the handcrafting and time needed to ensure each model leaves the premises in perfect working order, they are at the top end of the price range and above certain budgets.
But that hasn’t stopped some military and police officials from spending their own cash to guarantee they are armed with a weapon that they believe will never let them down.
Rabbit Boyett, STI’s marketing manager, told Gun Trade World: “We do so much handwork on our pistols that we just can’t build them fast enough to fulfil the numbers needed for government contracts and we refuse to cut corners on our quality.
“A lot of those contracts are concerned with cost but, if a customer is willing to order in batches of 16, we’ll do pretty much anything they want, so we have found a niche doing smaller commemorative runs for individual units and the smaller, more elite special-forces units who have fewer constraints on their budgets.
“There are also a lot of police and military folk who are allowed to use their own personal pistols instead of departmental-supplied ones and an ever-increasing number are choosing STIs due to the reliability and accuracy we provide them.
“These are people who have to have complete trust in their equipment and we do everything to ensure they don’t have to think about whether it will go bang when they pull the trigger.”
Past and future
Virgil Tripp founded the company in 1980 after he built custom 1911 pistols which started to win competitions at local, national and world level.
Seven years later he formed Tripp Research Inc – now STI International – leading the industry into the precision world of EDM hammers, sears and other components before pioneering the modular 2011 frame, which provided a host of desirable features such as a 30lpi full checked grip assembly, a 35 per cent weight reduction and higher capacity.
It introduced complete pistols of such quality they became the standard by which other International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) firearms are measured.
In 1997 the company was bought by his close shooting friends Dave and Shirley Skinner but, eight years later, it was sold to the employees.
STI now offers 40 different models covering everything from small, full-powered pistols for concealed carry to the most cutting-edge competition ‘open’ guns with prices varying from $670 to $3,450.
The range has also made them one of America’s biggest exporters of guns with representatives in around 30 countries with some of the main importers being Thailand, the Philippines, Germany, Canada, Italy, Australia and Spain.
New areas they would like to break into include Argentina, Colombia and Portugal but that will only be achieved if STI is satisfied they can join forces with a distributor capable of living up to their high customer-service standards.
Rabbit added: “I think the thing that really sets us apart is the love we have for what we do. We spend a lot of time focusing on small details and do our best to build the guns we would want for ourselves.
“We are very aware that when someone buys an STI, in many cases they are literally trusting us with their lives and we do everything possible to be worthy of that trust. We are totally dedicated to providing our customers with the ultimate shooting experience. People notice that and word of mouth has largely sold our brand.
“The greatest selling point of our guns is that they work and just keep on working. Competitors put more rounds through their pistols in a year than just about anyone else – 5,000 is not uncommon – and they need it to run just as good on their next round as it did on the very first.
“That’s why we offer one of the best warranties in the world and our customer-service personnel are passionate about everyone being satisfied.
“Producing the finest and most reliable gun IS at the very top of our list. While our prices are lower than a lot of the other top-tier manufacturers we are still very aware that our pistols are not cheap so it’s a matter of ensuring our customers get great value for money.
“Every part that goes into the gun goes through multiple inspections throughout its manufacture. And even though everything has been checked, the gunsmiths go back over everything and make sure they are only working with the best parts before using them to build the gun. Our goal is to have no returns, so our customers never need to discover how great our warranty is!”
To cope with the ever-increasing demand for its state-of-the-art pistols, STI is now streamlining its processes, hiring more personnel and investing in new equipment.
The focus is to grow the business to its full potential but without losing the quality of its goods.
The global recession is partly responsible for increasing sales during times of struggle and tension the company has discovered that more people are looking to defend themselves, their families and their property from anyone who might seek to harm them.
And even if they are never used, many customers treat the guns as heirlooms, passing them down to the next generation.
While some companies may be content to sit back and take their foot off the gas once they have reached a certain level, STI is committed to continually looking at ways of improving its models – by listening to the feedback from customers – while ensuring the quality never wavers no matter how much demand increases. And that’s because all the workers are on the same wavelength.
Rabbit says: “The advantage of being an employee owner is that we are no longer just earning a pay check and making money for someone else – we have a vested interest in the future and are aware that everything we do directly affects the bottom line.
“This means we are all looking at the big picture of the company as a whole instead of just being concerned with only our own jobs.
“Morale is better, turnover of staff lower and productivity has improved. I think if more companies did the research many more ESOP businesses would be created.”
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