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Work Where You Play

Work Where You Play

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Building lifestyle brands for the outdoors.

“We work where we play,” American Outdoor Brands CEO Brian Murphy says, motioning towards the various animals mounted on the walls of their three-year-old building in Columbia — a bright, open, fun space that serves as the headquarters for the rapidly growing company. 

American Outdoor Brands is an outdoor consumer product company consisting of 20 brands that are geared towards outdoor activities such as shooting sports, camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, and personal protection. They are a company committed to creating legendary brands that inspire the spirit of adventure and help consumers make the most of the moments that matter.

“We want our brands to go from being product orientated to lifestyle orientated — to inspire the next adventure and deliver in the moments that matter,” Brian says.

Brian has been running American Outdoor Brands as CEO since 2016. He is a man of many talents; he has an undergraduate degree in finance and entrepreneurial management, a professional background on Wall Street, and is the author of the book See Mix Drink: A Refreshingly Simple Guide to Crafting the World’s Most Popular Cocktails. 

“I was actually voted most likely to be a professional cartoonist in high school,” Brian explains. “I’ve always been very entrepreneurial, and I had a mentor that said, ‘There are lots of creative people, but if you want to be effective, you should build out your quantitative skillset,’ which is how I ended up in finance.

“I hated finance,” Brian adds. “But we have this mantra in my family — we actually wear wristbands, it’s kind of dorky — but it says, “We can do hard things.” So, I thought, what is the hardest thing that I could do in finance? I hated it, but what was the hardest thing that I could do to see if I could do it? At the time, that was working on Wall Street, being an investment banker and selling companies. I ended up cold calling a bunch of people on Wall Street and somehow finagled myself into getting a job. I never planned to stay in finance — I always intended to go into advertising — but I ended up being good on the finance side because I provided a creative perspective to selling companies. I spent 5 years in that industry working on selling companies and restructuring those that were in financial distress. Fundamentally, my background is in strategy and finance.” 

American Outdoor Brands history is rooted in entrepreneurship. One of the reasons the company is headquartered in Columbia is because they spun out from MidwayUSA. Larry and Brenda Potterfield, the founders of that business, started four brands, Caldwell, Tipton, Wheeler, and Frankford Arsenal, as well as a business called Battenfeld Technologies  in the early 2000s. Over time, their business started coming up with more innovative products, which they began selling on their website. Through this, they found that there was demand outside of Midway. However, since it is awkward to sell to retail competitors, they made the decision to sell Battenfeld Technologies to a private equity firm in 2012. Smith & Wesson purchased Battenfeld Technologies from the private equity group in 2015, and Brian joined in late 2016 to run that part of the business. From there, more brands were acquired and eventually that part of the business broke off from Smith & Wesson and became its own business, American Outdoor Brands.

Every one of the 20 brands that make up American Outdoor Brands fall into one of four lanes: Adventurer, Marksman, Harvester, or Defender. Each brand lane has a team consisting of engineers, designers, product developers, writers, customer service reps, and more. American Outdoor Brands has a team of just over 300 employees — each highly creative and innovative when it comes to building out brands from products to lifestyle staples.

“We are very entrepreneurial, and if we have an idea for something, there is not a whole lot stopping us from going and doing it,” Brian says. “A lot of the brands we have look very different from 4 years ago — very old school. We’ve updated a lot and have really taken them from product-oriented brands to lifestyle brands, a brand someone can identify with if they are in this industry.”

American Outdoor Brands has a trademarked strategy when it comes to their brands: Dock and Unlock. Dock the brands into brand lanes and go through a process to unlock their value. In this strategy, their brands have power to play and innovate.

“We have done this for every one of our brands,” Brian says. “We start somewhere, then transition and execute on a pathway where each brand has what we call ‘permission to play,’ where we look at which product categories they can play in and which they can’t. This allows us to expand into more market categories and bigger markets as a result.” 

The company has a growth goal of $200 million in sales over the next four to five years without any new acquisitions, which would more than double their size today. They plan to execute this through expanding market share, getting into new product categories, reaching new consumer markets, and finding new distribution channels.

“Expanding through market share,” Brian explains, “is basically taking an existing category like fillet knives and getting into electric fillet knives. New product categories: We didn’t used to be in tents, sleeping bags, or mattress pads, but they are big markets that our camping brands have permission to play in. New consumer markets: We want to reach consumers we weren’t reaching before that are new to us. And new distribution: Outdoor products usually go to stores like Bass Pro or Academy, but we have brands that could go to Home Depot, ACE Hardware, etc.”

The pandemic served as a challenge for many companies in 2020, but the outdoor industry saw huge growth, resulting in great opportunities for American Outdoor Brands.

“A lot of our competitors were thinking that COVID was the end — that the whole world is going to change — and we had a suspicion that people were going to start going outside,” Brian says. “We were prepared for the worst, but we saw this opportunity, so we ramped up our inventory and asked our suppliers to make more products, which allowed us to service customers when competitors couldn’t.”

In just the last year, there were 8 to 10 million new firearm owners driven by personal protection needs, 8 million new campers, 3 million new fishing license holders, and 1 to 2 million new hunters.

“The great thing about the infusion of new firearm owners is that it is a very different demographic than the past. Two-thirds of the new entrants are primarily women and people of color, which adds great diversity to the industry,” Brian explains.

Last year, American Outdoor Brands launched over 40 patented products. Their new office features cutting-edge equipment that helps them continue to be innovative and quick when it comes to launching new products. Different variations of prototypes can be created in-house with 3D printers, allowing for the logistics of the product to be visualized, touched, tried, measured, and tweaked. With the machine shop, there is not much that can’t be prototyped in-house. Design concepts can be created, prototyped, and updated seamlessly, which allows the business to move forward to market more promptly. Through each round of prototypes, the product is presented to the team to get feedback or concerns, as well as to learn how their products work and are intended to be used.

“Collaboration is one of our values, and we really spend the time to create areas that are highly collaborative,” Brian says.

American Outdoor Brands is the only publicly traded company in Columbia. They are a high-growth company and committed to creating innovative lifestyle brands for the outdoor industry. 

Rapid Questions with the CEO Brian Murphy

What is one business mistake you made and what did you learn from it?
We are all about failing fast — we embrace mistakes, and we aren’t hard on ourselves for making them. We either win or we learn. We have a culture of continuous improvement. We are always celebrating small victories.

What is the biggest business move you had to make during your time at American Outdoor Brands so far?
Choosing Columbia, building our new building to represent our headquarters, and closing the other locations. That was hard because brands that were established in other states had their own stories, and it was tough to deliver that news, while at the same time it was exciting for Columbia.

What is business advice you would pass down? 
Two things. One: The greatest opportunity is the one that is in front of you. I’ve always treated my career that way, and the business treats opportunities that way. It helps us take advantage of opportunities over the long-term. Two: It is not what you preach, it is what you tolerate. It is important to have a high level of integrity, and fact-based decision making is important. Companies sometimes have bad actors or people that are tolerated because they are good at their job, so it’s easy to look past a level of toxicity in the environment. We have had to make tough decisions to let people go because we couldn’t show our employees, people that were pouring their lives into this, that we tolerated that behavior or that it was OK. It is a defining benchmark for us.

What is business advice you were given that you probably wouldn’t pass down?
Work smarter, not harder. I feel like working smarter not harder has a laziness that comes with it. It’s hard to avoid. You can’t beat the person who never gives up.

What do you think it takes to run a successful business? 
Good strategy and good people. The good thing about strategy is that the priorities have already been set and now there is empowerment for employees to execute. 

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