|6/8/2018 10:07:00 AM|
Vortex getting comfortable in new digs
By Jim Massey
The village of Barneveld has welcomed its new business neighbor with open arms, and employees at Vortex Optics are trying to return the favor as they make themselves at home.
Vortex completed its move from Middleton in April, settling in Barneveld's industrial park on the southwest edge of town. The company immediately became the community's largest employer, with about 250 employees as of the first of June.
But "getting big" isn't what motivates the company's owners and managers, said Jimmy Hamilton, chief media ambassador and one of the co-owners. Jimmy's brothers, Sam, Dave and Joe, own the company along with their parents, Dan and Margie Hamilton.
"Growth has never been our primary goal," Jimmy said. "It's been a byproduct of serving our customers. That will always be first and foremost, the most important thing we do. Sometimes by nature of serving more customers, you need a bigger building and more people to service your customers better. As more people started using Vortex, just naturally we needed to grow."
Vortex specializes in optics, from rifle scopes to binoculars to spotting scopes and all the accessories that go with them. The vast majority of the company's products are sold through U.S. retailers, although some sales are made directly to military and law enforcement customers and in the company's new showroom in Barneveld.
Vortex vacated seven smaller buildings in Middleton during a two-month transition to the new 250,0000-square-foot headquarters. The move was made in "waves," Hamilton said, to make it easier on movers and keep the business running.
But the move was in the works for years, according to Pat Preimesberger, Vortex's director of human resources. Dan Hamilton told his employees four years ago that the move was coming, so there wouldn't be any surprises when it took place.
"Every single employee (from the Middleton location) moved with the company," Preimesberger said. "Every employee we've hired in the last four years knew this was coming. It was really well communicated."
About 85 percent of the new hires in the past six months have come from Iowa County, Preimesberger said, with between three and five new employees joining the firm every month.
"What (the Hamiltons) do so well is take whatever we're doing well and try to build on it," Preimesberger said. "That makes it difficult to project what our growth might be. We might stop hiring for a while to focus on our core business. But in the recent past we have seen continued slow growth."
"Five years ago we didn't even know we were going to bein Barneveld, so to put a number on how many employees we'll have in five years would be shooting in the dark," Hamilton said.
Vortex Optics grew out of a side business in a Wild Birds Unlimited store in Madison, Jimmy Hamilton said. The store was opened in 1986 and featured a wide variety of outdoor products, from yard art to bird feeders to binoculars.
"My mom and dad kind of latched onto the optics side of the business - they both enjoyed birdwatching and being outdoors," Hamilton said. "Later on, they wound up creating Eagle Optics, a mail-order business that was run out of the back of their Wild Birds Unlimited store. Eagles Optics provided a little bit bigger range of optics than what they sold before."
In 2002, the Hamiltons got the idea that they might be able to improve on the optics products they were selling by making their own. That's when the Vortex brand was created.
"We'd seen first-hand a lot of customers dealing with all kinds of different things with the optics that were on the market," Hamilton said. "We thought we could offer something a little different than what was already out there."
It took a while for the Vortex brand to gain traction, but once momentum was built through word-of-mouth and customer experience, the company took off.
"We really believe excellent customer service is the key - we just kind of got a following and built up steam to get to where we are today," Hamilton said.
All of the Hamilton family members play major roles in the company. Dan is president, while Jimmy works in media relations, Joe is the director of sales and marketing, Sam oversees manufacturing and engineering, and Dave is responsible for product development.
Vortex products are featured on the company's website (www.vortexoptics.com) but not sold online. The products are sold at sporting goods and gun stores throughout the country, from small local stores to Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops and Scheels.
The company's products are also on display and sold in the new showroom at the entrance of the building.
Some of Vortex's products are manufactured at the Barneveld site while others are made overseas to the company's specifications.
"In an ideal world we'd make as many products as we could here, because you have more control that way," Hamilton said. "But we have a wide range of products, and at times if you're trying to remain more affordable with an entry-level product, you're probably going to have to go overseas."
Most of the company's "high-end" products, primarily rifle scopes, are made at the Barneveld facility by the 140 employees who work in the manufacturing portion of the plant.
The firm's most popular products are rifle optics and binoculars, Hamilton said.
"Our Strike Eagle series (rifle scope), our Strike Fire 2 (red dot) and our Diamondback binoculars have been hugely popular products," he said. "These products mix a nice level of quality with a really affordable price and give our customers some of the best bang for their buck."
A shooting range is nearing completion as part of the Vortex complex, and will be used for new product development, testing and customer service. The shooting range includes a 100-yard portion and a smaller 50-yard range.
The company's shooting range manager has discussed the possibility of opening up the range for use by local law enforcement officials, Hamilton said, but it will depend on the time availability beyond company use.
Vortex bought more than 100 acres in the village's industrial park, and is building a preschool/daycare on the property near the Peoples Community bank building. The daycare is scheduled to open in late summer or early fall.
Other businesses might be opened on the Vortex property in the future, but nothing firm has been decided, Hamilton said.
"Right now Vortex is the main focus point, so it's really hard to concentrate on a lot else," he said. "We'll let the chips fall where they may and see how things progress."
Hamilton said Vortex officials have been paying close attention to the recent call for stricter gun laws in the wake of school shootings across the country.
"To ignore that would not be a good move on our part," Hamilton said. "We try not to get into politics too much as a company, but obviously anytime the topic of gun control comes up, it could certainly affect our business. We're very strong Second Amendment supporters and do what we can to help the cause, but our primary focus day in and day out is to make sure we're serving our customers the best that we can."
Barneveld was selected as the business site of an extensive search in Madison-area communities, Hamilton said.
"Barneveld was on the radar but it wasn't the only spot," he said. "But it became more and more apparent as we kept looking around and the business park opened up here, that Barneveld was going to be the site."
It took about two years from the time ground was broken until the building was occupied with its first employees, Hamilton said.
Hamilton said Vortex employees appreciate the "unique small town feel" of the Barneveld location, and have seen - especially from the local people the company has hired - that "everybody is very close" in the community.
"We get that vibe very strongly," he said. "It's been excellent. When a big building moves into a small town it can be kind of out of the norm. But the Vortex culture has always been to provide our customers with the best service we can, so it wouldn't be very consistent of us to offer great service to our customers and then not be good stewards within our community.
"The village has welcomed us with open arms and it's been great. We love it here. The Nature Conservancy (property to the south of the building) makes for a beautiful view, and we have easy access off Highway 18-151. We're really happy."
Company officials are planning a grand opening July 14, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Hamilton said.
People who are interested in employment at Vortex are encouraged to monitor the company's website by clicking on "Career Opportunities" under the "More" tab. Applications are also available by stopping in the Vortex showroom.
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