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Winchester: repeating the success of America's premier arms maker.

The old office building at the corner of Winchester Avenue and Munson Street in New Haven, Conn., is on the National Registry of Historic Places. It has been the home of Winchester firearms almost since there have been Winchester firearms.

An old wooden building that used to be across the street was the Winchester factory of the late 1800s. Oliver F. Winchester himself built rifles and shotguns there on the leather-belt-driven machines. Although that building was a veritable museum, years ago the oil-soaked plank floors and the building itself went to a hazardous waste dump before it went up in a blaze to rival the Chicago fire.

This was the challenge facing those who formed the U.S. Repeating Arms Company -- to continue manufacturing the venerable Winchester guns. While the oldest building had been razed, the company still had a manufacturing facility dating back to the turn of the century. The rambling interconnected three- and four-story buildings pre-dated efficiency in operation.

Updating USRAC

Let's shift the scene to France: the time is mid-1989. The French government pulled its firearms and ammo manufacturing out of the military and formed a private company, GIAT. A profit-and-loss environment would be more cost effective, and make it easier to export their products.

January 1991, GIAT acquired Fabrique Nationale (FN), the parent company of Browning. At the time FN owned 40 percent of USRAC/Winchester, so GIAT bought the remainder.

Two of the strongest brand names in the world, Browning and Winchester, being complementary and compatible, made GIAT the world leader in guns. Consolidating these separate companies under combined management cut overhead and realized economies. Because the European ammo market had declined, GIAT also bought the OLIN/Winchester ammunition plant in Anagani, Italy, in December 1991.

Shift the scene back to New Haven. Don Gobel had joined Winchester in 1965. He was the financial officer of Winchester-Western, then vice president for firearms, and from there to vice president of Browning. He spent 13 years with Winchester from 1965 to 1978. He's now vice president of sales and marketing for Browning.

This puts Gobel in a unique position. He knows the traditions of the gun business and the challenges that long faced the companies operating in that New Haven factory.

"Efforts by USRAC to restore gun designs to their traditional quality were right," Gobel said. "The company simply did not have the financial resources to carry it through. When GIAT offered me the job of heading Winchester and Browning U.S. operations I made it conditional that GIAT recognize major long term investments were needed. They wouldn't pay off for a while. They'd even make matters worse in the short term, but there would be no future without them. I needed to build a long-term position rather than trying to optimize operations for the short term.

"Second, this would be possible only with a new modern one-story plant and investment in new equipment."

Gobel signed agreements to build a new plant across the street from the historic building. He signed orders for several million dollars worth of new equipment. GIAT committed to an investment of $18 million, not counting construction of the new building.

For some time there were a lot of rumors in the industry regarding the future of USRAC. In February 1992, Gobel decided to economize by moving to a vacant building in Wallingford, Conn., but Science park and the City of New Haven developed an alternative plan, convincing Gobel that demolition and reconstruction would be possible in timely fashion. In addition, they offered financial incentives too good to turn down.

Gobel went back to France and resold the plan to keep manufacturing in New Haven. On June 16, city and state officials, along with representatives from Yale University and Science Park Corporation, joined Gobel for the ground-breaking ceremony. The start-up construction began in August. The first building will be 150,000 square feet, and is expected to be completed in one year. If that goes well, a second 200,000-square-foot building will be added.

Modernizing And Upgrading

The move across street will be done in stages. There have been modest investments in new machines in recent years, but starting now there will be major investments. The plan is to start up new production before shutting down the old factory to maintain a stable product flow. Many existing machines are being refurnished before moving to the new plant.

World Class Manufacturing is the modern manufacturing concept in factory redesign currently being explored at Colt. Although it's being called "JIT" (Just In Time) manufacturing at Winchester, this "cellular" design puts people working together in small teams.

"Management is too used to telling people what to do and not listening," Gobel explained. "JIT requires teamwork. We've already started it in a small parts machining cell of 45 employees. It is demonstrating the concept. It brings back pride. The factory worker feels a part of it all."

At one time, the Model 70 bolt traveled some 7.5 miles to get through production. Under the JIT cell concept, it travels perhaps 1,000 feet.

Recently, Gobel held a series of employee meetings to explain his redevelopment plan. Union president Craig Gouthier was with Gobel to explain the union's commitment to the program. "It would be impossible to rebuild Winchester without the know-how of the people in the plant," Gobel added.

Over the A-Gate arch Gobel installed the old sign that says, "Under this arch pass the world's greatest craftsmen who make the world famous Winchester firearms."

The New Plan

There are two keys to Gobel's plan: new products and JIT manufacturing. "This is a market-driven industry. We must have the products the consumer wants," he said.

The Model 70, considered the finest bolt-action rifle ever, lost its reputation for excellence after 1964. More recently USRAC started redesigning it back to the original, restoring its original quality. Some gun writers now say the current Model 70 is the best in history. The Model 70 offers stainless steel and box magazine versions. Dealers will soon see a European model as well.

Shotguns really will see changes. The pump gun is a strong product which has greatly improved over the past few years, with turkey, deer, slug, and stainless steel marine versions now available. The semi-auto is number one for product development; the 1400 is a good gun but it doesn't have a good reputation.

The company plans to come back with an over/under like the old 101 -- called the 1001. It will be made at Browning's Moroko factory in Japan.

The SHOT SHOW gun of the year in 1994 will be the Centennial Model 94. The company will do other limited editions. Not just embellishments, but recreating some of the old John Browning-design Winchesters produced in limited quantities. Reproductions will be made at Moroko, where small quantity production is feasible. Moroko now makes Browning's bolt action rifles, over/under, pump shotgun, Auto 5, BLR, and .22 rifles. Moroko is a captive supplier to Browning.

The Winchester custom shop is being run as a separate profit center. It is doing quite well now with custom Model 70s.

A Bright Future

Gobel is optimistic about the future of the gun industry. He is vice chairman of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and is also on the boards of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturing Institute and Wildlife Management Institute.

"The target (shooting) market has shown some growth in recent years, trap-shooting has grown," Gobel said. "Sporting Clays is exploding as fast as they can build new facilities. Sportsmen's Team Challenge is helping to renew interest.

"The women's market has shown growth. Some products have been designed for (women) with shorter stocks and lighter weight, to better fit the female physique. In Sporting Clays, particularly, women are taking a strong position. Browning sponsors the Women's Sporting Clays Championship in Houston."

He credits sportsmen who have paid for habitat improvement, conservation, and increasing game populations. He points to the "Unendangered Species" films and "What They Say About Hunting" with correcting wrong impressions youngsters have been taught about hunting.

"Winchester and Browning are committed to the long-term success of hunting and shooting," Gobel concludes. "We intend to take a leadership position worldwide.'

That's the commitment of both Don Gobel, GIAT, and Winchester.

A New Plant In Science Park

Groundbreaking for the new Winchester/USRAC factory in Science Park was held June 16, 1992, as the old buildings were beginning to be razed, but construction is not starting quite as quickly as the company had hoped.

In October the site still held concrete rubble and two buildings slated for demolition nearest to Winchester Avenue. The basement of next to the street was literally a huge swimming pool -- it must be pumped dry before demolition can start. These buildings were built during World War I, and they were made to withstand potential shelling from the harbor. They aren't going to come down easily.

The new facility will be 250,000 square feet. Certain departments will remain as single units. Barrel blanks manufacturing support and wood shop are at the input side and will serve everyone.

There will also be four independent manufacturing units for the 9422. Model 94, Model 70, and shotguns. Between the rifle and shotgun lines will be one unit with processes common to all: heat treating and metal finishing.

The State of Connecticut is investing $1 million in public improvements, including street lights, sidewalks and landscaping, as well as providing $2 million to demolish the old buildings.

The move across the street will be done in stages. There have been modest investments in new machines in recent years. There will now be major investments. The plan is to start up new production before shutting down the old factory to maintain a stable product flow. Many existing machines are being refurbished before moving to the new plant.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Publishers' Development Corporation
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Winchester rifles by U.S. Repeating Arms Company Inc.
Author:Clede, Bill
Publication:Shooting Industry
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Previous Article:Gun legislation 1992 - the year in review.
Next Article:Tough times don't last - tough businesses do: five steps you can take to turn your business around in these hard times.

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