Adversity was the impetus for the founding of Brownells, one of the most successful family-owned and operated companies in the firearms industry. Had founder Bob Brownell not been stricken with a devastating illness, Brownells might not exist today.
During a recent interview with us, Frank Brownell, Bob’s son, recounted his father’s early business dealings.
Cement Highway into Montezuma, IA
The first cement highway into Montezuma, Iowa, where Bob Brownell’s relatives lived, was buit in 1937 and Brownell saw a business opportunity. Not a single gas station had been errected along the 60-mile stretch of road. So, Brownell opened a full-service, 24-hour gas station, complete with a companion Maid Rite, a mid-Western, franchised hamburger sandwich shop.
Illness Strikes Bob Brownell
A year later, and as a result of opening car radiators that used alcohol, Brownell became seriously ill. Medical specialists confirmed he suffered from an allergy to alcohol, which developed into a syndrome that affects a person’s balance to the point that those stricken actually fell over.
Brownell ended up flat on his back with a business to run and wife and three kids to support. He had no income from the gas station because he used his salary to pay the help who replaced him.
Brownell’s Early Pistolsmithing Days
“As a result, Dad started pistolsmithing – on his chest,” Frank remembered. “He’d been pistolsmithing since he was 12 years old. Always a tinkerer, assembling and disassembling everything, he particularly loved handguns.
“Then World War II hit and times got even worse. Gas and tires weren’t available and everything was rationed. The family depended on Dad, but he was sick. He was forced into doing more and more gun work.”
The lack of parts during the war mean everything had to be repaired, which played right into Brownell’s genius. He understood firearms mechanisms innately. He could simply look at a gun and understand how it worked. He also started bluing firearms. Soon the Shell Station morphed into a pistolsmithing business.
As time passed, medication helped Bob conquer the illness. Back on his feet, he aggressively led his fledgling company to success.
From Gunsmith Mart to Brownells
During the early days, Brownell wrote about gunsmithing, to promote his business. He also advertised his new venture, the Gunsmith’s Mart, in the NRA’s Rifleman magazine. The business name also changed several times before becoming simply Brownells.
There was little doubt the family business would cascade though Brownell generations. Young Frank worked doing whatever he could. But, he wasn’t allowed to officially apply for work at Brownells until he completed college and a stint of at least three years at another job.
The same rule applied to Bob’s grandsons. Frank’s son, Pete, spent five years outside the business before returning to Montezuma and Brownell’s.
Frank and Pete Brownell Move Brownells into the Future
Today, Frank and Pete, chairman and president, rely on Bob’s blend of ingredients – a concoction of Business 101 laced with a heavy dose of old-fashioned ethics – that made Brownell’s early business recipe so palatable to consumers.
“Dad’s philosophy was straight forward,” Frank explained. “He focused on three key elements: offering a wide array of products; delivering them to customers quickly; and unconditionally guaranteeing every item sold. Selection. Service. Satisfaction. That was his formula for success.”
Bob Brownell died in 1991, but he lives today through Frank and Pete. They don’t waver from Bob’s original business recipe but occasionally add a few spices of their own, to satisfy customers’ ever-changing tastes.