Posted: 3/12/2008 5:08:02 PM EDT
[Last Edit: VortexSam]
I realize that many of you may not have heard of Vortex Optics yet, so I wanted to add this thread that explains a little bit about who we are.
We recently had a nice article written up about us in Arrow Trade Magazine, so I am going to post that here for people to read.
The cover below is our family. We have been involved in the optics industry for over 20 years, but not as a manufacturer of our own brand of sports optics. Several years ago we decided we wanted to have our own brand, so we started Vortex.
The article explains in a bit more detail about our company, but I'll just give a quick run down of who is pictured below. On the right side is my brother Joe and his wife Susan. Joe is the sales manager and his wife also helps with sales. My mom and dad (Dan and Margie) are in the center. My dad is the president of Vortex and helps with product development. My youngest brother Jim is above them. He's 13 and finishing up 8th grade. David and I are twins, David is on the upper left and I'm below him.
With the exception of Jim, who is only 13, and my brother David the rest of us all work here at Vortex. David is currently serving in the Air Force. We are very proud of his service and hope someday he will come back to work for Vortex.
|Twenty years of experience as “mom and pop” retailers is behind the Hamilton family’s efforts to build a world-class optics brand based in Madison, Wisconsin. |
As ArrowTrade’s Editor and Publisher, I was invited to visit the Vortex Optics headquarters in midsummer. I learned not only how this firm started and operates today, but a lot about how quality binoculars, spotting scopes and rifle scopes are designed and built. During our interview we also probed into how optics can be marketed in today’s webcrazy world in a way that protects a healthy profit margin for brick & mortar retailers.
Dan Hamilton heads the optics brand he and wife Margie founded partly out of frustration with the business practices they encountered while selling optics out of their Wild Birds Unlimited franchise store. They’d been living in Indiana in the mid-80s, he working as a dentist, his wife as a nurse, when they decided to change careers. Dentistry can be a high-stress occupation and as a way of unwinding Dan told me he liked to hike in the outdoors and feed and watch the wild birds on his own property. “We found out about a store that opened up nearby to where we lived. We visited it and thought it would be fun to operate a store like that, a business where people came because they wanted to, instead of with dread like is often the case for a dentist’s office.”
Wild Birds Unlimited had been started in Indianapolis by Jim Carpenter in 1981 and two years later had opened another store in Ft. Wayne, and the founder suggested the Hamiltons look to Wisconsin if they wanted to get in on the franchise. After touring the state they settled on the Madison area, which they felt combined some of the best of smalltown and big city living. Binoculars were a major component of their product mix, along with feed and feeders. But the more optics they sold, the more Dan and Margie became convinced optics were not being marketed in a smart or fair manner.
“The optics industry was not well managed,” Dan explained. “We either gave the customer a great value, and we didn’t make any money as retailers. Or if we made money on the transaction, usually the customer didn’t get the best value,” the president said as we sat at a table with three other Vortex staff members. In other words, a customer who bought binoculars from the Hamilton’s Wild Bird Unlimited in Madison at a margin that was reasonable to support the business might be upset a few weeks later to find the very same optics for considerably less through a mail order supplier.
|Chris Geiger is the repair specialist within|
the customer service team at the
Vortex Optics headquarters in
Middleton, Wisconsin. His office holds
everything he needs to align, repair and
recover damaged binoculars, rifle scopes
and spotting scopes, and to purge them
with nitrogen or argon gas. At left, he
demonstrates how set screws are used to
align the prisms so both sides of the unit
show an image that matches perfectly.
Above, he checks the alignment using
yellow and green beams of light that
project grids on a screen. Product
returned for repair is sent back to the
customer or store in about a week.
|As the owners of a single retail store in the Midwest, the Hamilton’s weren’t going to get the big European and Asian and American optics brands to change their pricing and distribution policies. They had more success working with their suppliers to improve the performance of the product. “Binoculars were a specialty to us, not a sideline as they were to the camera stores or the telescope stores. When we started selling them, binoculars were not very sophisticated,” Dan said. “Some didn’t have any coatings on the lenses or the prisms. Eye cups were hard plastic or folding rubber, which would crack after repeated flexing.” (Each uncoated glass surface can reflect back 4 to 5 percent of the light attempting to pass through it.) |
Most binoculars built in the 1980s used the bulky porro prism designs, not the sleek roof prism designs popular today. Their short relief limited eyeglass wears to a partial view. They were heavy. Waterproof capabilities were built into only the most expensive units. The Hamiltons suggested that the companies build in long eye relief and twist-up eye cups, then worked in their store to trumpet those advantages to consumers. They asked the manufacturers to reduce binocular weight. They explained that birdwatchers needed close-focusing to enjoy their sport. They argued for better glass and better coatings, in part to give the true colors their customers appreciated. “We were the ones that goaded Swarovski into bringing spotting scopes with HD glass into the United States,” Dan recalled. “They were selling them in Europe, but didn’t believe spotting scopes of that quality and price would find a market in the United States.”
|Vortex designs binoculars with an eye to style as well as performance.|
Above, Product Manager Janet Calhoun holds a Hurricane whose attractive
checkering on the rubber aids in keeping a sure grip. The open hinge design
of the new Razor Binoculars (below) is even more secure while using with one
hand, something that might be important if the user had a gun or bow in the
other. Sam Hamilton designed in twist-eye cups that have precise, click stop
settings, and hid the diopter setting under the pull-up center focusing knob.
|The owners and key staff at the Madison store became such experts in the binocular field that they began buying in higher volumes and wholesaling optics to other franchise owners. They added a mail order component to help raise volumes and give them more purchasing power with the factories, a separate business they called Eagle Optics. Originally they selected what they felt were the best units at different price points, from the binoculars already being produced at overseas factories. Then they began suggesting the factories develop models with certain features, for sale through the Wild Birds Unlimited network of what is now 300 stores. |
“Eagle Optics became a brand that the Wild Birds Unlimited stores primarily sold,” Dan explained. “Then we came to the point that we really wanted to have a separate brand that we could promote to independent retailers. Just like we made selling optics fun and profitable for the Wild Birds Unlimited stores, we thought we could make it fun and profitable for other dealers as well. The future of our company is Vortex optics,” he said of the brand introduced in 2000.
Margie Hamilton, Dan’s wife, took over the management of the Wild Birds Unlimited Store in Madison so Dan and some key staff members could concentrate on building Vortex Optics. They include product manager Janet Calhoun and Adam Vrotsos, the marketing and advertising manager who joined us in the conference room for the interview. Joe Hamilton, seated across from me at the table, is the accounts manager and heads up a sales team that includes his wife, Susan. Sam Hamilton has taken the lead in designing new models and was on vacation the week of my visit. A third son, David Hamilton, was “on loan” to the United States Air Force, as his father put it.
|Sam Hamilton (above) plans to use this counter-top CNC|
machine to build prototypes of his new designs. Below, a carefully
ground glass prism is inspected for quality. These roof
prisms flip and invert the image to the correct orientation,
while the lenses like the one being tested at right do the magnification
and focusing. Mid-end and upper-end models by
Vortex have phase-corrected prisms, meaning a special coating
is used to eliminate the half-wavelength difference in light
phase inherent in the way light bounces off the mirrored surfaces
of the prism.
|Below, binoculars await installation of lenses|
at one of the overseas factories.
|Dan seemed confident the business could offer enough excitement to lure David back once his active duty ends. You see Vortex Optics isn’t just using its good ideas to develop its own styles of cutting edge optics for archers and gun hunters. It’s out to revolutionize the way optics are sold. |
Vortex has its own elaborate, customer-friendly web site that generates sales for its retailers. “We use a company called Shopatron to do that,” Joe explained to me when I asked about the prices I saw listed on the web site. “Let’s say you live in Madison and place an order off the web site. Shopatron sends an order alert to all the dealers who are signed up and they have a chance to claim it. (To claim the order a store must have that product in stock and be ready to ship it.) Then Shopatron assigns that order to the nearest dealer. A lot of archery products are also being sold through the web now using the Shopatron system. The reason behind it is customer convenience. Yes, we have a dealer locator on the web site and Vortex products are available through other merchants who have on-line sales. Still, its gives peace of mind to some customers to order directly from the manufacturer’s web site. The kicker is you’ve got to get that sale to go through the local dealer. This system, Shopatron, is the only one I know of that does it effectively,” the accounts manager concluded.
“We thought it was very important that Vortex not sell direct, but we have made it very easy for customers who come to our website to purchase our products,” Dan said. “Now they can, and the dealer gets credit for it. By the way, Eagle Optics does not belong to Shopatron. We make it clear to dealers that Eagle Optics is not favored in any way, since we do have that separate part of our company that is a retailer. Eagle Optics is one of the Vortex dealers. But on our web site, in the category for on-line dealers, we list it last.” The president offered another example of how a conflict of interest is avoided. “There’s a big deer and turkey show every year in Madison. Years ago, Eagle Optics used to go there as a retailer. Now Vortex goes there and supports its Vortex dealers.”
Typically the Vortex booth will be set up across from a retailer selling the brand at the Wisconsin Deer & Turkey Expo, Joe explained. Other Vortex staff members may be
assigned to other retailer booths on the floor, to promote optic sales. Price competition between retailers is generally not an issue, because the price floor has been set by this manufacturer who is quite willing to cut off MAP violators as a way to protect its growing business.
Fifteen years ago, when the company first started using the Eagle Optics brand, Dan reminded me it had started with products that were fairly generic. “Then we graduated a little bit to where we would take off-the-shelf products and modify them slightly. Then we went from there to saying lets take this product and modify it drastically. We’re at a level now, with a lot of our products in the Vortex Optics line, that we’re starting from scratch. We’re going to the factories with the specifications and they have to build it. The next thing we’ll probably do is develop prototypes here, and possibly do some manufacturing
Sam Hamilton earned his degree in design, and uses 3-D modeling programs like bow designers do to create the programs that function as the”blueprints” for new binoculars and rifle scopes. He now has a compact CNC machine in his office, so he’ll be able to give the factory both the file that holds the product design and a completed prototype. Vortex has its optics built in factories in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines, and Sam and Dan travel to them to maintain good working relationships and to reinforce how committed the company is to giving customers the best value it can at different price points.
|The big Skyline and compact|
scopes Adam Vrotsos holds
are available with straight
or angled eyepieces.Vortex
has developed its own
profitable tripod line for its
dealers and has adapters
for mounting cameras to
|Part of Vortex Product Manager Janet Calhoun’s job is to stay in contact with that handful of overseas suppliers to make sure they deliver quality product on time. I put her on the spot by asking her how she could sell a common binocular size, 8x42, at price points all the way from $200 for the Diamondback models to $750 for the new Razors.|
“That’s a very common question that all of us have had to field many times,” Janet said. “It’s like a car in many ways. All of those have four tires, a steering wheel, and are made of metal, glass, rubber and plastic. Yet the pricing varies widely. For binoculars, it depends on how the product was developed, what tooling is needed to produce it, where the parts are gathered from and how they are assembled.” There’s a value that has to be assigned to the engineering time that went into the design, she said, and the quality of the glass, the care taken in the polishing, the type of coatings and the type of inert gas used to purge air and moisture from the system are all going to affect the final price.
“We think it’s very important to have a broad price range for our dealers to select from. For a smaller store, this Diamondback might be their high end binocular. That $200 retail price point may be where they like to stop. We wanted to bring dealers the very best $200 binocular we could, so we micro-manage each and every product in the line,” Janet added.
Diamondbacks are waterproof, fog-proof, and fully multi-coated. I know now from the 24-page All About Optics booklet Adam Vrotsos sent me home with, that fully multicoated
means every glass surface in the Coyote Brown binocular had been coated with multiple antireflective coatings. Good optics demand that, because with 10 to 16 air-to-glass surfaces you could lose half the light if no coatings were used. However, those prisms and
lenses are not of the same quality as you’d find in higher priced models from Vortex.
“The heart of most optical systems is the prism,” Dan explained, the part that corrects the orientation of the image seen through the lenses. “The prisms are graded, almost like a
jeweler would grade diamonds. An $800 binocular is going to have prisms that were carefully selected and graded to be higher quality, even before the polishing is done and the special coatings are applied. You might have 100 prisms and only two or three are worthy of the high end product. Some of the others may have tiny scratches and dings in
them. They’ll still make a binocular good enough for the average person looking through them.”
I learned more about prisms from Chris Geiger in the repair shop at Vortex. He showed me how he peels the rubber back at the seams so he can get at the tiny setscrews used to align the prisms. He checks the alignments with the aid of a machine that projects green and yellow light through them onto a single viewing screen. Binoculars dropped
out of a treestand can be knocked out of alignment, which could result in eye strain or even a double image. If they land on a rock, Geiger can replace the broken components, or authorize a complete replacement. Having an in-house repair facility and offering an unlimited full warranty solves the kind of service headaches Margie and Dan Hamilton faced when they stood behind a counter and sold binoculars.
“If a customer had a problem with a binocular, a lot of times there was a big discussion about whether it was a manufacturer’s defect or your fault,” Dan recalled. “As a retailer,
we might be telling the customer they’d have to pay $50 or $150 to have it fixed. We didn’t want that to be the case with Vortex so everything is backed by a VIP Warranty, which stands for Very Important Promise. If you have a problem with our product, we make it our problem and we make it go away.”
“We’ve heard the stories about having to ship other brands back to the Orient, and three months later you haven’t heard anything,” Joe said. “That’s why it’s all handled here. There’s no paperwork to fill out. The customer just needs to send it back to Vortex, or the dealer can return it. Within roughly a week you’re taken care of. If we can’t fix it, we’ll replace it. It’s fully transferable, all you have to do is return the product, or a piece of it.”
|Vortex Optics has used factories in Japan, the Philippines, Korea and Taiwan, as well as|
Japanese-managed factories on mainland China, to build the binoculars and spotting
scopes.Now that product line includes a mid-priced Diamondback and higher end Viper
series of rifle scopes for hunting, with tactical models coming next. Above, an aluminum
scope tube is cut to shape. Below, tubes await anodizing.
|Janet has seen binoculars dogs have chewed to shreds, and trucks have driven over. When a customer comes in wondering if the bad thing he let happen is going to be covered, and finds out it is, that dealer has a customer for life. And Vortex has a dealer for life.|
As a US-based company, Adam said Vortex has the option to set policies, like the Vortex VIP Warranty, that make sense for its growing base of retailers. It doesn’t have to look to a foreign headquarters for approval, or meet sales goals somebody out of touch with market conditions has set.
“We don’t want to load our dealers up with product,” Joe emphasized. “We want them to buy just what they’ll sell. If things don’t sell, we’ll stock-swap it.” If you’re an established
retailer willing to abide by the pricing policies, you can become a Vortex Optics retailer with a $1,000 opening order. And that doesn’t have to be all binoculars. Vortex sells spotting scope, tripods for use with them, and recently introduced Viper and Diamondback rifle scopes. *Since time of writing, we have also introduced the Crossfire and StrikeFire series.*
Why does Vortex want to enter the crowded field of rifle scopes? In part to bring some of the same solid profit margins to that category that it introduced with its binoculars. In part because designer Sam Hamilton likes to shoot guns as well as bows, and keeps coming up with ideas to benefit both types of hunters.
Here’s an example. There’s nothing new about variable power rifle scopes but on mine you turn the dial with a little nub and you have to hold the gun off to the side to see what power you’re choosing. The six models in the Viper series Sam Hamilton designed use a prominent MagView adjustment bar to change the settings and you can see the power you’re selecting with the rifle at your shoulder.
“Sam got some creative genes I didn’t,” Joe acknowledged. “With his engineering expertise, you’re going to see more and more unique products and features from Vortex. That’s why our tagline is The Force in Optics.”
Within the year, you should see new Vortex products incorporating rangefinders. He looks forward to the day when some of the binoculars are manufactured in a Vortex-owned facility in the U.S., beginning with some of the simpler designs.
That may seem far-fetched in a country that’s long imported most of its optics, but the Hamilton family and the 30 other employees they consider an extended family already do a lot of things in house: The firm’s IT department oversees sophisticated ordering and inventory systems and came up with the idea for the web site feature that lets you click on
products and then compare the features in side-to-side charts. The Vortex advertising and graphics art department are responsible for classy new catalogs, the “All About- Optics” instructional booklet and new counter mats that feature scopes as well as binoculars. Graphic arts and sales and IT are readying an on-line course that should be ready by September, so dealers and their sales staff can take in-depth training on optics and then test to become certified optics specialists. Sure the multi-unit course is going to help dealers sell any brand, not just Vortex, but those better-trained dealers will also keep Vortex sales heading up.
|Susan Hamilton stands by a shipment of Vortex binoculars built in Japan. This scene|
shows part of just one of the several bays where products are kept in inventory pending
shipment to Vortex Optics customers.
|Expanding into manufacturing the products it already designs, warehouses, advertises, sells, supports and repairs is another challenge he looks forward to, Dan said.|
“I know we won’t ever be big like Bushnell or some others, because our plan isn’t to sell optics to everyone that wants to sell them. Will we ever be thought of in the same way as Leica or Zeiss? It will probably never say “made in Germany” and that is something that sets those brands off, just like it does a BMW. Someday it may say “made in USA,” and that may be as good, or better.”
At the beginning of 2007, the Hamiltons sold the Wild Birds Unlimited store Margie had headed up. I asked Dan Hamilton how he and Margie want Vortex Optics to be remembered when they don’t have to play an active role in that business anymore. “As a
specialized brand, I’d like to see us known for things we’re doing right now, for excellent products, excellent customer service and excellent dealer support. I want us to be known for doing the right thing by people,” the founder concluded.
Vortex dealers might say they already are.
|Cindy Kelly of customer service (above)|
has been fielding calls about the new rifle
scopes from current customers as well as
new ones, like gunsmiths looking for a line
that gives them better profit margins.
The 2-7 x 32 model above in the Viper
Series is rugged, because it’s been tested to
a force of 1000 g’s, 500 times. It uses a
unique ViewMag Adjustment bar that
makes it easier to switch power. It was
designed to have the powers show from
the rear, rather than the side, so hunters
and varmint shooters can check the power
or dial in a different power without taking
the rifle off their shoulder.Windage and
elevation settings are made with tool-free
(This article is copyright 2007 by ArrowTrade Publishing Corporation and is used by permission. Retailers can call (877) 538-4416 to request a free subscription.)