Quality is ‘Driven Deep’ At Blackhawk
When Blackhawk says “we’re not just making gear; we’re honoring a vow,” that is not just lip service to its market – it is a serious commitment to the company’s quality in its products. This is because in 1990, a Navy SEAL was navigating a minefield when his pack failed. Seeing his gear fall to the ground, he vowed that if he got out of there alive, he would make gear the right way. He did survive, and that became Blackhawk’s founding value – the company’s commitment to quality and reliability applies to everything it does. By putting the needs of men and women in uniform at the forefront of its entire operation, Blackhawk aims to better serve those who serve and protect us.
“That is still our motto and we will always be committed to that,” Manager of Operations Lamont Kotter explains. “Our products are essential for the soldier, law enforcement professionals and civilians, and they perform a vital function for them. This focus on quality is driven deep into the organization and the brand.”
With its facility in Manhattan, Mont., Blackhawk is a leading U.S. manufacturer of tactical, military, shooting sports and law enforcement equipment. The company designs and manufactures tactical gear, law enforcement duty gear, holsters, hydration systems, protective gloves and gear, apparel and footwear, knives, illumination tools, breaching tools and recoil-reducing tools. Blackhawk is part of Vista Outdoor LLC, which is a leading provider of innovative outdoor products.
Blackhawk’s operation is very much vertically integrated, which is key in ensuring it delivers high levels of quality, according to Kotter. The company takes products from concept to final production at its own facility, designing products, building its own tooling and running its own production. It does all of this under its own roof in Montana, although Blackhawk has established strong relationships with trusted and valued partners that contribute to the operation.
“We can control the quality, but we can also turn things around quickly,” Kotter says. “There is no bureaucracy here, so we can react quickly to any need in the market. We’ve invested heavily in our people. For example, we invested in our manufacturing engineering team to train them in automation technology so we can do all of our own automation projects. We didn’t want to hire any outside company to come in and automate for us. With the skills of our people, we can quickly change to adapt and improve. Continuous improvement is bred deep here, and we are always measuring output and performance and trying to improve.”
With this focus on quality and improvement, Blackhawk was named the 2017 Montana Manufacturer of the Year by the Montana Manufacturing Association, which, Kotter says, is based on business excellence and a strong community mindset. “We love doing business in Montana because of its great people and great overall community,” he adds.
The Five Values
Blackhawk maintains its focus on product excellence by staying true to its core values of safety, quality, delivery, engagement and cost. The company constantly works to improve in those areas for its customers, Kotter says, and each department in the operation measures the five values in their own way. He notes this not only helps Blackhawk enhance its products, but also improves overall performance, customer relations and the entire business model.
“Continuous improvement in these five areas is part of everything we do,” Kotter explains. “It’s such a fun environment because we like challenges and face them as a team.”
An annual exercise at Blackhawk is to look at what has been accomplished in the previous year, determine where the company wants to be and create strategies for the upcoming year to improve and influence in each of the five values. Right now, the company is focused on being more cost efficient, faster in production and more nimble in response to the needs of the market.
“We are launching a new holster this year – the T-Series – it is new to the market and we’re really excited about it,” Kotter says. “T-Series is based on all the great things of the Serpa holster with added benefits and improvements. The T-Series is thumb-driven, so it has a different release method, but it is still based on our master-grip principle. The holster naturally releases the weapon, although it stays safe and secure until the operator needs it.”
He notes the T-Series holster is made with two materials, a strong durable material for protection and retention of the firearm, and a low-friction internal material that allows for a smooth and effortless draw. The liner also provides sound-dampening for stealth drawing and holstering. As a result, the T-Series is “very fast and very secure,” Kotter says.
“We are heavily engaged in designing new product and building tooling for it,” he adds. “For the T-Series, we set an internal record for the number of molds built and product launch in such a short period of time.”
A successful product like this is a result of the strength of the Blackhawk team, he stresses. “This culture fits very well with our founder’s mentality,” Kotter says. “We come together as a team to solve problems so we can provide a valuable product and help the consumer in some way. We’re always trying to improve and help each other, which results in a great product and great culture.”
The Blackhawk culture also is apparent in the local area, he says. The company believes it has a duty to contribute to the community near its facility, and this year it helped develop a manufacturing curriculum at two of the local high schools. People from Blackhawk’s manufacturing team also helped to teach the classes.
“We measured students’ perception of manufacturing before and after the class, and we saw a 60 percent improvement when the class was completed. So many folks really don’t understand how exciting, clean, team-oriented and positive manufacturing is. But when they come in and see the environment, team focus and the optimistic way in which we approach challenges, they get excited about the opportunity in this industry. We encourage the students to look at manufacturing and all the different career paths in this market, and we also do mentoring and job coaching with young people.”
A Passion to Improve
The U.S. Army recently awarded a contract for a new pistol, Kotter says, and that is driving other agencies and governmental departments to follow suit, so Blackhawk is working to develop products related to that. He notes the company sees a strong demand on the civilian side, and that will continue to be an area of growth.
Blackhawk plans to drive the market with new products, and it recently moved its corporate headquarters back to Virginia Beach, Va., to once again become more connected to the market, Kotter says. By using its continuous improvement focus on its five values, as well as working to remain innovative, he believes Blackhawk will continue to ensure the market has what it needs.
“We have a passion to always get better,” he says. “I’m very proud of this team and what they accomplish every day, the improvements they drive and how they help and support each other. I feel very fortunate to be in manufacturing and especially to be a part of a great team producing outstanding products.”