From the humble beginnings Larry and Brenda Potterfield have grown MidwayUSA into a leading shooting, reloading, gunsmithing and hunting business. All along, they’ve kept their focus on the customer—and the NRA. Given their prominent place in the firearms industry, Larry Potterfield’s choice for a first-date venue with wife and business partner to be Brenda couldn’t have been more appropriate. Seated on the front row of a local theater, the college sweethearts settled in to watch one of 1968’s most popular movies: the Steve McQueen action classic, “Bullitt.”
“Bullitt” gave way to bullets—untold numbers sent down the barrels of the couple’s hunting guns and who knows how many more sent through the loading docks of MidwayUSA, the company Larry and Brenda started just outside the city limits of Columbia, Mo., in 1977.
Forty-two years after that first date, Larry and Brenda are as close as ever. They share a common love of family, the outdoors and hunting (whether it be for turkey, elephant or the elusive morel mushrooms that sprout up around their farm when conditions are just so). They also share a love of running the business they started in 1977, and while each brings a particular strength to the boardroom, they share a common customer-first philosophy.
Larry doesn’t remember the first dollar he made at MidwayUSA, or the first product he sent out the door when he started the company as a 1,632-square-foot open-to-the-public gunshop just a mile from where the current, and much larger, MidwayUSA facilities stand today.
But he does remember the first customer—or at least the circumstances surrounding the first customer. "The 18th of June, 1977, high noon, we opened the doors," Larry recalls. No doubt the excitement level was high for both Larry and his business partner, younger brother Jerry Potterfield. Ready and raring to go, Larry arrived at the shop—then called Ely Arms Inc.—a half-hour prior to opening.
“the 18th of june, 1977, high noon, we opened the doors,” larry recalls.
“I got here about 11:30, and the first customers had already shown up,” Larry remembers. “Jerry had let the first one in the building by the time I got here.”
That was most likely the last customer to ever slip by Larry. Both he and Brenda have put the customer at the forefront of their business. Posted in numerous prominent places around the MidwayUSA facility is a document titled “Company Goals.” Number one on the list: customer satisfaction. You’d better believe all 350-plus MidwayUSA employees see that poster every day, and, just like Larry and Brenda, they take it to heart.
A short walk from the main MidwayUSA warehouse is the MidwayUSA contact center. Here, orders are taken and customer questions answered 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Calls aren’t routed through some offshore facility; customers speak to a dedicated MidwayUSA employee located a stone’s throw from where the order will be processed and shipped.
So keen is the company on staying in touch with customers that every salaried employee at MidwayUSA is required to spend an hour a week taking customer calls. Larry instituted that policy years ago, philosophizing that if some emergency prevented a number of his regular contact center reps from making it to the office, it shouldn’t slow down the business of taking care of customers. Every full-time staffer at MidwayUSA has the training and experience necessary to step up when the need arises.
“It’s just a part of the way of life at Midway,” Larry says. “If you’re going to serve customers, focus all your energy on serving customers and don’t say, ‘Well, I’ve got another job to do.’ The customer comes first.”
A unique display of Canada geese hangs from the rafters within the Potterfields’ lodge.
Cabin not far from their Columbia, Mo., home and Midway USA facility is perfect for a quick getaway.
That commitment to customers has played a huge role in growing a small retail gunshop into one of the world’s leading catalog and Internet sellers of shooting, reloading, gunsmithing and hunting equipment and accessories. MidwayUSA distributes more than 95,000 different products to customers from more than 700 different vendors, and it does so with a customer satisfaction rating upward of 90 percent.
The commitment to excellence that Larry and Brenda have fostered at MidwayUSA resulted in the company receiving the 2009 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, an award given annually by the president of the United States to businesses and organizations judged to be outstanding in seven areas: leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement, analysis and knowledge management; workforce focus; process management; and results.
Larry Potterfield beams when speaking about the Baldrige award. It’s an honor he takes pride in. He also takes pride in the work he and Brenda do for the National Rifle Association. Through all their years running MidwayUSA, Larry and Brenda have been strong supporters of the Association that Brenda calls the protector of freedom. Ideas born in their first small gunshop have blossomed into millions of dollars of support for the NRA.
"as soon as they’re able to carry a gun, they’ll be out there with me hunting."
“Back in the retail days from ’77 to ’84, we came up with the idea of putting a coffee can on the counter and asking people to put change into the coffee can,” Larry recalls, “and we would send that money to NRA-ILA on some periodic basis.”
The idea didn’t actually come to fruition until 1991. By that time, MidwayUSA’s business was largely computerized. Larry realized the company could program its computers to round up a customer’s order—at the customer’s request—to the nearest dollar, and that money could then be sent to the NRA-ILA. Far more efficient, and lucrative, than a coffee can full of change, the initiative came to be known as the NRA “Round-Up” program. It was set up the second day of January 1992.
The first customer that day gave money, and the program has been going full-bore ever since. This past January, Larry was at the Safari Club International Convention when he received a text message stating that the Round-Up program had just topped $5 million.
“Every Tuesday since 1992 we’ve sent that check to the NRA,” Larry says. “Every year, they spend 5 percent of it to fight the good fight to keep and bear arms.” Shortly after starting the Round-Up program, Larry and Brenda came up with another idea to help the Association that Larry sees as an extension of his customers: They would throw a party to benefit the NRA. They did, and the concept grew into the Friends of NRA program. Since the Potterfields hosted that first get-together in October 1992, more than 12,000 Friends of NRA events have taken place, raising more than $140 million for The NRA Foundation.
“All Brenda and I did was come up with the idea,” Larry says humbly.
Just as their hard work at MidwayUSA was rewarded with the Malcolm Baldrige Award, the Potterfields’ efforts in support of the NRA have not gone unrecognized either. Larry and Brenda are charter members of the NRA’s Ring of Freedom society. They hold the distinction of being the sole members of the Charlton Heston Society—the Ring of Freedom’s highest honor.
They proudly wear their Golden Ring of Freedom jackets at NRA events. But, as seems to be the case with everything they do, they wear the jackets not for personal glory. They do so to further the cause of freedom. “I wear the jacket to all the events,” Larry says. “And I tell people, ‘They gave me this jacket because I gave them a lot of money. I wear it hoping you’ll do the same thing.’” Although he confesses that, in his younger days, he dreamed of retiring at the age of 40, Larry Potterfield shows no signs of slowing down.
A row of shotguns within the GunTech studio.
“Somewhere along the line I realized I didn’t want to hunt and fish all my life, I just wanted to hunt and fish when I wanted to. I enjoy working and serving customers, and you can’t do that if you’re out hunting and fishing all the time.”
Having said that, the couple does find time to hunt. They do so as a family, with daughter Sara and son Russell, both of whom have joined their parents as integral parts of MidwayUSA and affiliate company Battenfeld Technologies.
Soon, the grandkids will join the hunt, and Brenda will be able to combine her second-favorite pastime, hunting, with her favorite pastime, being with grandchildren. She says she looks forward to the day when she can “turkey hunt in the morning and be with grandbabies in the afternoon.”
It won’t be long. Five-year-old granddaughter Eliza went on a dove hunt for her first time recently. She didn’t shoot, but she was there—with family.
“I was close to my grandparents,” Brenda says. “And I still have fond memories of making biscuits and picking cotton on their farm. I still have those memories. I want my grandkids to have memories of the great things they did at grandma’s house. As soon as they’re able to carry a gun, they’ll be out there with me hunting.”