When the doors opened on the second day of the NRA Show this past April in Indianapolis, an attendee bolted across the floor to small 10' by 20' vendor booth. He grabbed a pen, a piece of paper and wrote "Dammit Frank" on it. He then held it up asking if he had won.
The booth was that of Apex - actually, Apex Tactical Specialties but everybody just says Apex, anymore - and the sign was part of an inside joke at the company that ended up the night before as a show contest on Facebook. The first five NRA Show attendees to come to the Apex booth with their own "Dammit Frank" sign would win some free kits.
The idea was a last minute one and came from Apex co-owner Scott Folk. Apex's brand and increasing popularity has grown online where word of mouth about the company, their customer service, their parts and, most importantly, their ability to deliver solutions to the problems customers bring them has helped them grow from a one-man operation to a workforce of 17.
It was therefore no surprise when the first person at the booth Saturday morning was a breathless shooter holding his homemade sign. What was surprising was the photo posted on Facebook from a customer who could not make it to the NRA Show but wanted to offer up his own contribution to the Apex meme. That customer was on deployment...in Kosovo.
Of course he won some parts as well, despite not being able to make it halfway around the world to Indianapolis. Folk was more than happy to bend, or perhaps better put, amend the rules of his mini contest for a deployed serviceman because at Apex the unofficial motto is "Because We Can."
This simple sticker sums up the spirit of Apex and the declarative "Because We Can!" serves as the company's unofficial motto. Photo by P. Erhardt
Apex got its start at California Polytechnic State University where founder and co-owner Randy Lee was an electronic engineering student. He started working on guns for friends going into law enforcement and then used gunsmithing as a way to earn extra money.
From there Lee remembers his gunsmith work spiraling out of control and into a full fledged business in 2000. From then up through 2007 Lee worked on a variety of guns, including 1911s, Browning Hi Powers and Glocks. But it was Lee's work on revolvers that cemented Apex's reputation.
By being one of the originators of the use of the lighter titanium cylinder in stainless revolver frames and the first to break the 5-pound barrier in trigger pull weight (their triggers run around 3.5 pounds now), Apex rose to become the preeminent wheelgun house in the U.S. with most top revolver shooters putting the fate of their competition guns in Randy Lee's expert hands.
Apex's reputation as the place to send your revolver for custom work is due to Randy Lee. As an engineer, it's his technical approach to improving firearm performance that has set Apex apart from other shops and put any Apex tuned gun in high demand. Photo by P. Erhardt
As Apex's reputation and business grew the work soon became too much for one gunsmith to handle and Lee talked to Folk, who had been working in Oregon with well-known gunsmith Bruce Gray, about join gin Apex. Folk was looking to return home to California and while Lee could not offer him the 'big bucks' he could offer him something more promising - a stake in the company.
So in October of 2008 Scott Folk joined Apex as a co-owner, and that's when the small gunsmithing shop began its shift towards becoming a manufacturing company.
Though Lee had been crossed trained at Cal Poly in mechanical and material engineering, the larger scale production know-how was missing. Folk's joining Apex proved to be a key strategic move as he brought with him a wealth of knowledge, contacts and experience in machining and production shop management, creating what would become a serious one-two punch for Apex.
Placing A $900 Bet
As the sign next to Scott Folk's desk just off the shop floor implies, the smart approach to solving the problems customers bring them is the way Apex operates. Photo by P. Erhardt
While Apex was buried in gunsmithing work, a chorus of shooting voices were singing out for help with the new M&P pistol. Smith & Wesson's M&P was finding more and more of a following among shooters, but many were asking for an aftermarket solution to improving the model's trigger feel and performance.
Customers naturally turned to Apex seeking help. The company's groundbreaking work on S&W's revolver triggers was the gold standard, so customers figured who better to look to for improvements on the M&P than their friends at Apex.
Lee's focus was on seeking a simple solution that eliminated the traditional labor intensive gunsmithing approach most were looking at. His answer was the first of what would be many engineer designed drop-in parts. The sear he designed for the M&P cut the trigger pull from approximately 7 pounds down to 4. It also reduced over-travel which shortened the reset providing a lighter smoother roll-off.
The only hurdle Apex faced was manufacturing the new sear, which would cost money. About $900 at the time, which the small business couldn't really afford if the owners wanted to eat anything other than Top Ramen for the next few months.
But not taking this chance would limit their growing company to gunsmithing only, and with just 24 hours in a day that's a very limited path to financial growth in a business model based predominantly on labor charges.
Eventually the decision was made to send out the new sear for production and hope for the best. The risk wasn't simply that outsourcing the manufacturing would cost a lot for the small firm, but that once made it was possible that nobody would buy the sear. Apex had never ventured down this path and there was no guarantee their customers would respond.
On December 23 of 2009 Apex announced their new sear (now called the Fully Machined Sear) for the M&P and put it on sale online at 5:00pm Pacific Time. Lee did not have long to wait to find out how customers would react to an aftermarket product from Apex.
By 7:00am the following morning Apex had sold out of their first run of the new sear. Feedback from customers came in shortly after and it was extremely positive. There were even comments from shooters in South Africa, though Lee to this day has no idea how they got their hands on the new sear.
Apex ordered a second run of sears, nearly tripling the number this time around. When they went on sale the response was a little slower than before as Apex customers took a whole 17 hours this time to put the part into backorder.
The high risk $900 bet paid off - BIG - and Apex found itself on the verge of a whole new business model and about to grow their company well beyond what they could have imagined just a few short weeks prior.
Next week in part two it's more parts, more customers and more employees as Apex turns from a custom gunsmith shop into a manufacturing company.
- Paul Erhardt, Editor, the Outdoor Wire Digital Network
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