Story by Donnelle Eller, The Des Moines RegisterDES MOINES, Iowa -- Brownells is an economic developer's dream: a fast-growing, homegrown Iowa business that treats workers like the neighbors they are, eagerly donates to a passing community hat, and grooms leaders who sit on city boards and holler from soccer game benches.
February 3, 2013
February 3, 2013
The Montezuma-based supplier of firearm accessories, ammunition and supplies also stands on the front lines of a national debate over gun control — selling controversial high-capacity ammunition magazines and parts for semi-automatics like the AR-15. Third-generation CEO Pete Brownell, 41, is a member of the National Rifle Association board, and the company is a high-dollar donor to the powerful gun-rights organization.
Brownell's battle against efforts to restrict access to guns is about more than business, Brownell's friends and colleagues say. He's passionate about protecting the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right "to keep and bear arms."
"Government is trying to restrict this industry, restrict this economy … and probably the most dangerous thing is that it's trying to restrict our freedoms," Brownell told members of the Iowa Firearms Coalition last fall.
Gun opponents have attacked Brownells' website to slow its business. Another group claims the company and other industry leaders have given "blood money" to the NRA to pad their profits.
"Today's NRA is a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, two years ago when his group released a report on gun industry contributions to the NRA.
Last month, the Huffington Post reported that Brownells has given the NRA from $1 million to $4.9 million since 2005.
Pete Brownell said Friday that his family has supported the NRA for 60 years. Since 1991, its donations have exclusively supported safety training, education and programs for youth and training for law enforcement.
The gun-control debate has only intensified since the shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December, when a gunman carrying three firearms, including a semi-automatic assault rifle and high-capacity ammunition magazines, killed 20 schoolchildren and six educators.
Russ Behrens, the Grinnell city manager and a neighbor of Brownell's, said the company leader is respectful of opponents' views: "Even though his stance is pro-gun, he's also not so thick-headed that he can't understand the other side of the discussion."
"That's relatively rare in this discussion," said Behrens, himself an avid outdoorsman and a key player in persuading Brownell to bring a nearly $16 million expansion of the company to Grinnell. They reached the deal after hunting pheasants two years ago.
Construction began last fall on the 200,000-square-foot office and distribution center. It is expected to create 162 jobs initially and about 200 more over the next decade.
Legislation to ban some weapons and ammunition shouldn't hurt Brownells' growth plans, the CEO said.
"Brownells has a very diverse customer base and product base," Brownell said in written responses to questions from the Register.
Demand for high-capacity ammunition magazines and semi-automatic weapons has escalated with efforts to ban them.
In December, Brownells told customers that it has received magazine orders equal to about 3 1/2 years of demand. The company, in a yellow banner across its website, asks customers to be patient as it works to fill orders.
Brownells, Inc. fulfillment team members prepare an order at the in Montezuma, Iowa operation.(Photo: courtesy of Brownells, Inc.)
The guns and ammunition industry has grown steadily throughout the recession, increasing 5.7 percent annually over five years to nearly $12 billion last year, said Nima Samadi, a senior analyst at IBISWorld Inc., a research company in Santa Monica, Calif.
Fear over potential changes in gun laws has "probably been the single largest driver for the industry's aggressive growth," Samadi said.
But once Congress decides the issue, one way or the other, sales should return to historical levels, he said. Through 2017, growth is expected to slow to about 3.5 percent annually.
"There is the possibility certain people will opt to not purchase a gun if the one they want is not available on the market," Samadi said. More likely, "people could simply substitute" an available firearm for a banned model.
And "the vast majority of gun buyers should see little or no impact" from more thorough background checks, Samadi said.
Debi Durham, Iowa's economic development director, said Brownells creates the kinds of jobs the state wants: advanced manufacturing, highly skilled service techs, and distribution and warehousing.
"There are other companies Brownells works with that can grow here," said Durham, who has come to know Pete Brownell through his work as a member of the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board. The board oversees her department.
In August, Brownells received $1.1 million in state tax credits for the Grinnell project and an estimated $5.8 million in property tax abatement from the city over 20 years.
The community also received a $1.4 million transportation grant to help build a road to the company's 60-acre site.
Durham, Behrens and others in the community say the firearms industry is misunderstood. "There's a lot of education that needs to be done," said Durham, adding that Brownell's work with the NRA and other industry groups has helped to spread the word about recreational and sport activities.
Company helps lead growth
Local leaders said Brownells, founded in 1939 by Bob Brownell, has been key to helping Montezuma, Grinnell and other nearby communities grow. "Having owners who live in the community is a huge advantage, especially as cities rely more on philanthropic support for parks, aquatic centers and libraries," said Behrens, the Grinnell city manager.
Frank Brownell, the founder's son, has been a Montezuma City Council member since 1965. And both Frank and Pete Brownell have been active in Montezuma's long-term visioning initiative, called Monte 20-20. It surveyed 700 residents.
"We wanted to know what's important and what do we want to build on," said Dave Veerstag, the Montezuma school superintendent.
The group's work has led to efforts to add new housing, refurbish downtown buildings and develop a child-care center for working parents, said Deb Collum-Calderwood, executive director of Poweshiek Iowa Development, called POW I-80.
The community's efforts will help businesses like Brownells better attract workers, Collum-Calderwood said. One reason Brownells decided to expand in Grinnell was a desire to access a larger labor pool.
Brownell said his family has overcome extreme challenges to build its business.
Bob Brownell began the company, originally a gun-smithing business, because an illness prevented him from operating the gas station and sandwich shop he owned.
The development of new medications helped him regain his strength and build his gun business. He began a column for the NRA and developed a popular catalog.
His grandson told Iowa Firearms Coalition members last fall that Brownells represents the American dream. "It started as a small business … and through hard work, dedication, entrepreneurial effort — taking a lot of risk and taking a lot of time — it grew into the largest supplier of firearm parts, tools, accessories and ammunition."
In fact, the only year Brownells failed to increase its business was during World War II, when paper was rationed, limiting Bob Brownell's ability to produce a catalog, Brownell said Friday.
Official NRA Membership Application
Brownells is the largest supplier of firearm accessories, ammunition, and supplies. This is a great company who stands on the front lines of a national debate over gun control.
I have ordered from Brownells in the past and they are always a wonderful company to deal with.
Please remember that this company is under attack just like others in the firearms industry are these days.
So please, don't forget to support Brownells. After all, they too are fighting to preserve the 2nd Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Our freedoms as Americans.
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