If you're leaving Salt Lake City, you drive north on U.S. 89, the "old" highway, that runs through Farmington and Fruit Heights. You go up Weber Canyon and take the Mountain Green exit.
You drive along a country road for awhile and then take the left fork that heads for the tiny Morgan County airport. The public road continues for another quarter mile or so and ends at a padlocked gate.On your left, across from the airport, is a long, low building that looks vaguely like a ski lodge - 1960s style - or maybe a dormitory. A huge lawn and large, mature trees front the structure. A brick wall and sliding chain-link gate guard the entry to the grounds - all 640 acres of them.
A small sign on the wall, almost an afterthought, modestly identifies the premises: Browning.
It's probably a safe bet that almost everyone on this planet over age 40 has at least heard of the Browning Arms Co. In Europe, the legendary gunmaking firm is generally credited with helping win both world wars.
Certainly most Utahns, especially the thousands of sportsmen who take their venerable Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) out of their cases and into the mountains each fall, know about Browning.
But if almost everyone knows some of the 110-year-old Browning story, not many have ever seen its North American headquarters in Mountain Green (Morgan is its mailing address only). This is a very low profile company.
"We like it that way. This is a peaceful place to come to work each day," says Don Gobel, Browning president and chief executive officer. Like two-thirds of his 125 employees, Gobel commutes from Ogden each morning.
But if Browning keeps its head down and its powder dry, that doesn't mean it's doing business as usual. The old-line Utah company is currently going through a restructuring of its product lines that is as comprehensive as any since John Moses Browning founded it in 1878.
First, some background. The roots of Browning Arms go back to about 1810 when an Illinois teenager named Jonathan Browning first repaired a neighbor's old flintlock rifle - and found himself a trade.
Thirty years later, married with nine children, Jonathan heard talk of a man named Joseph Smith and the city he and his Mormon followers were building in nearby Nauvoo. Jonathan and his wife, Elizabeth, went to investigate. On Aug. 10, 1840, both were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In 1852, the Brownings set out for Utah where they made their home in Ogden and Jonathan set up his gunsmithing shop. His sons learned the business as well, but one of them, John M. Browning, had an affinity for it that surpassed even his father's.
John M. Browning, 1855-1926, became, unquestionably, the greatest firearms inventor the world has ever known, and his designs remain the staples of the industry even today.
When Browning executives talk about "new models" they are really speaking of subtle changes and improvements of the master's designs - designs that also bear such famous names as Winchester, Remington and Colt, among others. Virtually every major manufacturer bought the products of John Browning's inventive genius.
Almost from the beginning, Browning Arms had international ties. In 1900, John M. Browning had approached New Haven, Conn.-based Winchester about manufacturing a new Browning design: the A-5 automatic shotgun. The A-5
would become the best selling auto shotgun of all time but Winchester, to its future chagrin, turned him down.
Browning then went to Fabrique Nationale, a Belgian arms manufacturer, and made them the same offer. FN, as it is known, said no problem. That decision established a relationship that has lasted throughout the 20th century and culminated, in 1976, with FN buying out the company.
FN, which is itself owned by Societe de Generale (often described as the General Motors of Belgium) is divided into three divisions: defense and security, aircraft engines and Browning. Browning North America _ the company based in Mountain Green _ is the largest segment of Browning.
With the exception of former company head Val A. Browning, who at age 93 holds the title honorary chairman and who still attends all board meetings, the involvement of the Browning family in the company ended with the FN stock buyout.
Not long after taking over Browning, FN made a decision that went like this: The sporting arms business is not growing, hunting is giving way to an almost unlimited variety of new sports and recreations, so let's diversify into those new areas.
It seemed reasonable at the time, reflects Gobel, who came to Browning nine years ago from a position as vice president of firearms with Winchester and president of Weaver Rifle Scope Co. So, diversify Browning did _ golf and golf carts (Bag Boy), fishing, racquetball (Ektelon), archery, tennis and sailboards (in Europe only), outdoor clothing and boots, even pole vaulting poles.
Some of those new lines, like golf carts and racquetball, did fine. Others, like sailboards and tennis, didn't. FN found, said Gobel, that transferring the magic Browning name from firearms to wind surfers didn't work very well. The recession of the early 1980s, which also badly squeezed gun sales, didn't help either.
Thus, FN retained a consulting firm (SPA of Europe) to conduct a strategic analysis of its worldwide sporting goods business. SPA did just that, and their recommendations were clear and to the point: Whenever a company has as strong a brand focus in one area as Browning has in sporting arms and so dominates a specific (high end) market segment, they should concentrate all of their resources on that strength.
And though hunting is not a growth industry, the consultants said, the number of hunters in the United States has remained fairly steady at 16 million for many years. Hardly a puny market for a company to focus on.
Browning took the advice and has divested itself of all product lines not directly related to hunting and fishing. Only Ektelon remains a Browning company, and Gobel said negotiations to sell that (very profitable and successful) division will be completed by year's end.
Those decisions will have little, if any, impact on Utah. Still in the Browning stable locally are contracts with Salt Lake-based ATI to manufacture .22 caliber pistols and with Pro Steel in Provo, which builds Browning's gun safes for sale to firearms collectors. Browning is the industry leader in home safes.
Also unaffected is Browning's 70-employee archery equipment manufacturing plant a few hundred yards from the headquarters building. Browning's hunting bows are the second leading seller (after Bear) in America.
Other Browning North America operations include a distribution and service center in Arnold, Mo. (near St. Louis) and a sales office in Montreal. Firearms manufacturing is split between Asia and Europe with two-thirds of the guns built by Miroku, a Japanese company that has made only Browning guns for the past 20 years, and FN itself, which makes the other third.
It's an arrangement that works. With total sales approaching $150 million a year, Browning is the clear market leader in sales of high quality rifles and shotguns.
Having divested its non-hunting/-fishing sporting goods lines, Gobel said Browning now intends to take a much more aggressive market position in that area, including more employees, higher profile advertising and promotion, addition of new products, including more accessories, and "selective acquisitions" of other companies as opportunities arise.
The latter is already under way. Last January, Browning acquired 37 percent interest in 122-year-old Winchester Arms, which had been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for two years.
The majority interest is held by a group of private investors, but Browning has options to "take a more active role" in the company in future years if revenues warrant. For now, Gobel stressed, Browning of North America has no involvement with Winchester _ which retains a strong market presence in lever action rifles and pump shotguns.
The rapid increase in the '80s of product liability lawsuits also has had a negative impact on manufacturing in general, but gun makers are particularly vulnerable to such litigation. Insurance premiums are so high that Browning insures itself up to the first $500,000 of liability.
"We vigorously fight all such litigation," said Gobel. "I recently told a meeting of the Utah Bar Association that something has gone seriously wrong with the legal profession when there are lawyers who specialize in simply filing lawsuits. There has to be some logic brought out of the chaos."