It's been 488 years since Italian gunsmith Maestro Bartolomeo Beretta was paid 296 ducats for 185 harquebus barrels by the Arsenal of Venice. The invoice from 1526 A.D. is in the Venetian Archives, as that single transaction laid the foundation for what is known today as the world's oldest industrial dynasty. Steve Engelhardt reports.
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Beretta firearms today is an established name and leader of the global firearm industry, bringing the same craft and quality to their products that Bartolomeo Beretta demonstrated centuries ago. Headquartered in Gardone Val Trompia, Italy since its inception, the company expanded its operations to the United States in 1977. Jeff Reh, Vice-General Manager and General Counsel for the company’s U.S. division, talks about the unique philosophy that has spurred continued success for the Italian firearms manufacturer over the years, the impact the U.S. division is having in the North American gun market, and a recent significant investment into a new manufacturing facility in Tennessee, sending the message that Beretta USA is here to stay.
SEAL of Approval
Beretta USA was initially established to both serve as an importer of products to the United States from Italy, and as a repair station for any Beretta guns owned in North America. However, the company’s U.S. presence was elevated to another level in 1985, when it wrested the highly-prized contract from Colt Manufacturing in becoming the standard service side arm supplier to the United States military through its M9 pistol. Reh, who has been with the company since 1983, marvels at the company’s surge over the last thirty since that contract.
“During the late 70s, we worked very closely with members of the U.S. Navy Seal Team Six, a partnership that began when they approached us after their previous success and approval in using our guns.” Since then, Reh says Beretta saw its opening and greatly expanded its operations and employment in the U.S., presenting a line of products today that include handguns, rifles, and shotguns. For a story that began in a small valley in Italy so many years ago, the company recently finds itself writing new chapters with each year that passes.
Reh says that while the company’s initial contract with the U.S. military was crucial to their North American identity today, their subsequent creation and presentment of a wide variety of firearms has been instrumental in their sustained success. “In terms of the global firearms industry, we are the only firearms manufacturer that makes all types of small arms,” he says, adding, “we sell to civilian, law enforcement, and military consumers.” Reh says that part of Beretta’s ability to continue as a business for nearly 500 years is in their philosophy of always having the capability to “have something under development for the future, while having an established line of products able to impact every type of customer.”
He says this kind of mentality is necessary, given the way the firearm industry has evolved over the years. “The firearm industry is an extremely mature industry, given the fact that a bolt action rifle made a hundred years ago could function perfectly today, so for a lot of companies it’s really about discovering improvements upon these existing technologies in a way that is applicable to the large scale market.” Beretta is no different in this regard, he says, pointing to his company’s recent partnership with T. Worx Ventures in developing a powered rail that can be integrated into its assault rifles.
“The Department of Defense recently conducted a study into military combat rifles and the efficiency of the battery packs installed in the various components attached to them, such as flashlights, laser-aiming devices, or GPS coordinating equipment,” he says, adding, “Beretta is working with T.Worx to develop a battery pack that is actually part of the rifle, enabling it to power every additional piece of equipment on its own, and has a charge meter that can be recharged when needed.” The rechargeable battery pack for the assault rifle is crucial because often times when soldiers are about to be deployed, they will switch out all of their current batteries in their guns to replace them with fresh ones, given the uncertainty of mission conditions and time. “A lot of these batteries that are switched out for fresh ones often still have a decent amount of power in them, so this rechargeable battery will not only reduce the weight of the batteries and the gun itself, but also their waste.”
And yet, while the company is at the forefront of continuous research and development of new firearm technologies, Reh believes that their awareness of the present-day customer and their diversity of wants and needs is what is most integral to their prosperity. “The customer base for firearms is kind of diverse in that some are very casual while others are complete aficionados, similar to those who play golf.” He says that while each customer has their own values, Beretta produces every gun with the goal of “meeting the demands of the most demanding customer.” “We have men and women who buy our guns for self-defense or recreational activity such as trap or skeet shooting, we have Olympians who rely on our shotguns when they’re competing on the international stage, and we also have soldiers who are on the front lines in life-or-death situations and need their weapons to function perfectly,” he says, adding, “our customers are very committed to the products they use and we share that sentiment in the way we produce our guns.”
Beretta’s attention to detail and a comprehensive understanding of its products’ end user has caught on in a big way in the U.S. market, with 2013 producing a record year of profits for the firearms manufacturer. And while the company begins its transition into an updated, modernized manufacturing facility in Gallatin, Tenn., Reh says that the decision to shift operations and open a brand new site came from a variety of factors. Presently based in Accokeek, Md., he says, “This investment was something that we have been planning for quite some time, something we actually had initially expected to implement at our Maryland site,” he says, adding, “however, at the beginning of 2013, we saw Governor O’Malley and the state of Maryland attempt a bunch of gun controls bills, and felt the need to start looking at a more gun-friendly state.”
He says that between Governor O’Malley’s gun control push, and issues with previous administrations in the state of Maryland, they were fearful of the long-term sustainability of their operations and their ability to get their products into the hands of those who wanted them. “Finally, Ugo Gussali Beretta, our company’s patriarch, said ‘if we’re going to add this many jobs and make an investment as significant as this, let’s go to a state where we don’t have to worry about an anti-gun climate’,” he says.
Reh was appointed by Beretta to lead the search for a viable new location, and was tasked with not only identifying states that have displayed consistent support of the 2nd Amendment in the past, but ones that were expected to continue their support well into the future. “We also needed somewhere that was going to be relatively close to our original facility in Maryland, because we still have a lot of product and equipment there that would be very expensive to move,” he says, adding, “availability of flights to Europe were also important, given the company’s headquarters of Gardone Val Trompia in Lombardi, Italy.
The firearm company was particularly keen on looking at Greenfield locations, given their desire to build from the ground up, and Reh’s search took him across seven states and 80 locations, working with the states’ governor’s office and their respective economic departments. “After going through all different kinds of talks, discussing everything from white and blue collar employee availability and educational resources, to operational taxes and cost of living,” he says, adding, “We came up with 6 A-rated sites where we told Ugo and his son Franco, ‘if you locate here, you won’t be disappointed.” After having the Beretta family fly in and visit these locations, it was decided unanimously that Gallatin, Tenn., was the best choice.
Tenets of Commitment
Reh says that everything inside the new facility will be a direct representation of Beretta’s overall philosophy, demonstrating their commitment to the product, and the person. “One of the tenets of Beretta’s business philosophy is to invest in equipment and people to ensure the best possible product and quality,” he says, noting, “while we may be the oldest industrial dynasty in the world, our equipment is cutting-edge and enables us to produce at any capacity in the time we need to.”
He points to one such example back in 2001, just days after the terrorists attacks of 9/11 on the World Trade Centers. “We had existing contracts in place at the time with the US Army prior to those attacks, but a couple days after September 11th, I get a call from their contracting office,” he says, adding, “we weren’t supposed start production for another few months but he asked if we would be able to accelerate the process without increasing the charge.” Reh and the employees at Beretta USA got right to work and were able to complete an order that was expected to take 8 months in just under one month.
Reh says he wouldn’t have been able to get it done without the hard work and dedication of the employees on the factory floor. “Many of our employees have sons or daughters in the armed forces and while they never know on a pistol-to-pistol basis if they specifically will be using that one in combat, they know there’s a good chance at least one of our parts will be in their use,” he says, adding, “and as a result, they put their heart and soul into the product and it leads to exceptional quality.”
Beretta firearms have been around for centuries and, given a glimpse into the company’s current makeup and direction, it looks like they should continue their presence for many more. “It’s a company that’s almost 500 years old, so when we make decisions, like our transition to the Tennessee facility, we’re not looking one or two years ahead, we’re looking at decades, potentially even centuries to come.”