The Orvis Company, Inc.
The Orvis Company, Inc.
Incorporated : 1856 as C.F. Orvis Company
Employees : 1,200
Sales : $200 million (1997 est.)
NAIC : 454110 Mail-Order Houses; 339920 Fishing Tackle & Equipment Manufacturing; 713990 Fishing Guide Services; 713990 Hunting Guide Services; 721214 Hunting Camps With Accommodation Facilities; 721214 Fishing Camps With Accommodation Facilities
Founded in 1856, The Orvis Company, Inc. is the nation’s oldest mail-order company. Through yearly mailings of more than 40 million catalogs—resulting in 70 percent of its sales— the company sells premium fly-fishing tackle, hunting gear, and shotguns, as well as clothing, artwork, and gift items for the country life. Orvis operates 16 retail stores in the United States and four in the United Kingdom, claims over 500 dealers worldwide, and offers fly-fishing and shooting schools as well as chartered vacations and lodging.
Charles F. Orvis and the Beginning of the Mail-Order Industry
In 1831, when Charles Frederick Orvis was born, life in Vermont still bore a strong flavor of frontier days. Children were trained to be ruggedly self-reliant. Charles Orvis developed an uncommon practical inventiveness along with an unusual business acumen. By the age of 20 he was skilled with hand and machine tools and had mastered the basics of mechanical engineering. Charles, like many rural boys, also developed an interest in field sports early in life. However, his love was not just for “the kill,” but for the whole outdoors. He was eager to learn. As a boy he once watched an older gentleman who was an experienced fly fisherman demonstrate such artistry with the rod that it left Charles awestruck. That day Charles learned the value of experience and proper tools that he would carry with him all his life.
Charles carefully examined the best rods of the day and was soon building his own rods. It became a growing hobby for him. Both Charles and his brother Franklin became aware of the increasing tourism in Vermont and decided to reel in some business. In 1853 Franklin opened a hotel that later would become the famous Equinox House. Their lodging venture was profitable enough for Charles to turn his hobby of rod building into a business as well. In 1856 he formed the C.F. Orvis Company, with sales rooms in a small stone building next to the hotel. The Orvis family prospered as trains brought ever increasing numbers of tourists from New York and other cities to Manchester. These customers were great advertisements for the new fishing tackle company. The well-made rods and flies that were carried home by wealthy sportsmen generated repeat orders by mail. Building on his successful business, in 1861 Charles erected the Orvis Hotel on the same street as his brother’s establishment. The brothers also invested in and promoted the resort industry which brought support to Charles’s interests in the fishing tackle business. The community of Manchester, surrounded by the Green Mountains, gained recognition as a fine resort area. By 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War, Orvis had firmly established itself as a manufacturer of solid wood rods of superior quality. It also was becoming noted for its wide selection of flies, and had started a promising mailorder business.
The war temporarily halted expansion, but by the 1870s the company’s prospects had brightened. With a growing network of railroads, thousands of sportsmen began to travel to faraway lakes and streams. Increased orders for fishing tackle prompted Orvis to relocate his business to the now historic white frame building on Union Street. He began to explore the ways to improve his business and his products. As yet fly reels were not invented. Most people simply used casting reels. Orvis studied what was needed and what emerged was his first great innovation: the first ventilated narrow-spool fly reel to be mounted upright. In 1874 Orvis received a patent on his new design in fly reels regarded as a landmark in American fishing tackle history. The perforations on the side plates, which lightened the reel considerably, permitted air circulation through the line when it was on the spool. The reel was first offered in the trout model, followed later by a second model which was a bass reel with a wider spool, and a line capacity of 70 to 80 yards, compared to the trout reel’s 40 or 50. The two models, trout and bass, remained standard items for 40 years. Around 1900 the same reel was also offered in aluminum. Orvis was always conscientious about customer service, even when his product was not at fault.
From 1870 to 1900 Charles Orvis faced some very stiff competition. Hiram Leonard was producing fishing masterpieces, as were Shipley and Krider, Abbey & Imbrie, and Spalding. What Orvis did was excel in his production and marketing strategy. He made many personal contacts and received strong endorsements by well-respected sportsmen of his time. By the second half of the 19th century many woods were available to innovative rod builders. By 1870 the bamboo rod was being used in the United States as well. Although the split bamboo rod was recognized as superior to its solid wood forebears, no manufacturer could ignore the traditional materials. So Orvis experimented, well into the 1880s, with a wide assortment of materials. He eventually settled on lancewood rods and, after about 1876, bamboo rods. According to “The Orvis Story,” “his rods were reliable, his service and repairs were widely known, and his prices were reasonable. As one Vermont Yankee put it, ‘God made poles.... Charlie Orvis makes fishing rods.”
Orvis rods received many unsolicited endorsements by leading anglers of the day, all of which helped the business to flourish. Orvis’s contribution was not in producing large numbers of rods, but in producing a quality product and offering it at a surprisingly low price. He was getting testimonials at a time when some of his competitors were charging three times as much for their rods. Quality was critical to Charles Orvis. Every Orvis rod bore the seal of the master’s hand.
The Real Ferguson: Standardizing Fly Tying in the Late 1800s
By the last decades of the 1800s, the expanding American frontier invited many anglers to explore new waters. As fly fishing became popular, new fishing flies were in demand. Yet there was no recognized standard, no way anglers could know that the fly they ordered would be what they wanted. It was at this time that Charles Orvis’s daughter Mary Ellen began to make what would become a major contribution to the company. In 1876 Orvis hired one of the best fly tiers in the city to come teach his skill to Mary and the five to seven women that formed her Orvis fly production unit. Soon they were filling orders of flies made to exacting specifications. Mary, however, saw the deeper need for standardizing the fly tying industry. She heard from so many fishermen who were frustrated with being unable to get what they wanted. What one called a “grizzly king” was often far different from another’s idea. One fisherman lamented, “I can’t seem to get the right Ferguson.” Meeting his need, the man wrote back gratefully, saying, “You are the first I have met in a long time who knew the real Ferguson.” Over time, Mary would help many anglers find “the real Ferguson;” and in so doing she would give her father’s company a great boost in prestige and secure herself a permanent place in angling history.
By 1890 a full line of Orvis Superfine Flies were listed in the catalog under several classifications. They also offered standard as well as flies less generally known and not kept in stock. There were floating may-flies, and caddis flies made to order in any size desired. Bass flies were available in 80 patterns, along with richly dressed salmon flies. Fifty-six Halford dry flies completed the listing. In total, 434 patterns graced the catalog. Soon another catalog was needed. Mary’s catalog or book, which appeared in 1892, immediately became the one source for fishing ties. Favorite Flies and Their Histories was the world’s first illustrated classification and standardization of fishing flies. In 1893 she directed the assembly of an exhibit of Orvis flies and fishing photographs, taken by the nation’s leading photographers in many states, for the world’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. With the renown of the Orvis line of fishing rods and Mary Orvis’s reputation for fishing ties, Orvis commanded a solid market share into the 20th century. The company expanded its mail-order catalogs into geographic areas as their tourism and resort business grew. The company also began advertising more in the major outdoor magazines and journals of the time.
The “Duckie” Years: 1939-65
The crash of 1929 and the Great Depression brought disaster to all the Orvis enterprises. The lathes and milling machines were silenced. By 1939 Orvis was down to two employees, “Bert” Orvis and Hallie Galaise, the last of Mary’s fly tiers. Little inventory remained, and day-to-day money came in from repairing bicycles and tennis rackets. The romantic great outdoors was not accessible to most Americans. By the 1930s, north woods hotels were rotted and empty and few streams were visited by sportsmen. One by one the names of the old prestige tackle makers disappeared from the advertising pages of the sporting magazines. Orvis was well on its way to becoming a memory when Dudley “Duckie” C. Corkran arrived on the scene.
Founded by Charles F. Orvis in Manchester, Vermont in 1856, The Orvis Company specializes in fine quality flyfishing tackle, wingshooting clothing and shotguns, traditional country clothing, artwork, and unique gifts. As the country’s oldest mail-order company, Orvis pre-dates Sears and is the oldest fishing rod manufacturer in the world.
Corkran was an enthusiastic angler and golfer who had frequented the Manchester area over the years. In 1939 he learned of the Orvis operation and its struggles and arranged to purchase the company. What Corkran bought was a building, some well worn machinery, and a time-honored name. His first step was to hire Wesley D. Jordan as plant manager. Jordan, a veteran of the rod-building business, had started with the Cross Rod Company in 1919. Jordan shopped for good cane, rebuilt the Orvis milling machine, and developed a plan to improve the finish and durability of fly rods. However, just as Jordan nearly had the company on its feet, World War II began.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, turned the nation’s businesses to war production. Within days, Corkran received a three a.m. telephone call from the Boston Procurement Office of the Army, ordering ski poles made from Orvis split bamboo sticks. The poles were painted white for camouflage and shipped to the West Coast and Alaska, where the first U.S. ski troops were in training and engaged in Aleutian Island patrols. While the war brought the ski pole contract, it also brought new orders for the old Orvis Glass Minnow Trap. Because of food rationing and the harassment of the saltwater fishing fleet by German U-boats, commercial freshwater fishing was in peak production along the Mississippi. The popularity of the trap carried over well into the 1960s, but it was during the war that it played a crucial role in the company’s survival.
Up to the 1940s, fishing rods were built of various woods and varnished for protection. The varnishes were easily chipped or cracked, and exposed wood could rot and weaken quickly. Bamboo also cracked and split. Wes Jordan sought for a way to treat the bamboo deeper than its surface, to actually impregnate the fibers. After many tries, Jordan succeeded by sawing the cane poles in half, then tempering and impregnating them before gluing them together again and curing them. In 1946 the Orvis team led by Jordan patented the world’s first impregnated bamboo rod, making rods completely waterproof and warp-proof.
Over the next two decades, Orvis experienced steady growth and, with the help of its expanding mail-order business, became a brand name in outdoor sports. In 1956, the company celebrated its 100th year of operation by entering the retail market with the opening of its flagship store in Manchester, Vermont. The store at that time boasted over 10,000 flies and a casting pool for testing rods. By 1965 the company had grown to annual sales of about $500,000.
New Ownership Under Leigh Perkins: 1965-92
As Duckie Corkran approached 70 years old he began to look for a buyer for his company. Through a friend he met Leigh H. Perkins. Corkran was very concerned with how the new owner would run Orvis. But Leigh Perkins was already an Orvis man. He had bought his first Orvis rod in 1948 while in college. As a businessman, Leigh Perkins was fascinated with mail-order marketing and its challenges, so he immediately began to explore the possibilities. The venerable firm, renamed The Orvis Company, Inc., grew rapidly as it increased its offerings. Its catalog doubled in size and then doubled again as new customers discovered Orvis. Perkins decided to broaden his base of customers further by moving into the training business. In 1966 Orvis opened the first U.S. fly fishing school in Manchester, Vermont. He planned to not only sell the rods, but teach people how to use them. He also continued the Orvis tradition of innovation. In 1967 Orvis designed and produced the world’s first “Zinger” (pin-on reel) for anglers. As Orvis became a well-known brand name, the company experienced greater success. Perkins made the Orvis name synonymous with a way of life: a style of country living.
Perkins soon brought Baird Hall, an advertising executive, into the company to establish a company newspaper. Hall’s enthusiasm for fly fishing and country life were matched by his business sense. Having ties to the forests of Georgia in its rod-making capacity, Orvis in 1970 started a line of firewood known as Georgia Fatwood Kindling. The company expanded its lines of apparel the following year and introduced the world’s first brown camouflage hunting gear. Perkins and his staff insisted that the same uncompromising quality that was demanded of Orvis fly rods be present in the company’s tweed jackets, Irish sweaters, and carbon steel cutlery. Innovation continued as well. In 1972 Orvis developed the first modern exposed-rim, skeleton frame, superlight fly reel, and named it the “CFO.” Two years later, Orvis developed its first series of graphite rods. Perkins wanted to lure in the hunters as well. In 1973 he opened the country’s first dedicated wingshooting school at its facilities in Manchester, Vermont.
By the late 1970s, with fly fishing enjoying a resurgence in popularity, Orvis started a program to broaden its retail presence. Orvis made agreements with retailers to become Orvis outlets, remain independent and, for a relatively small investment, profit by merchandising the complete Orvis line. By 1977 there were few sporting magazines and publications, commercial or nonprofit, that did not have an Orvis Shop advertisement in their pages. In 1982 Orvis established its mail-order and retail business in southern England near the legendary trout rivers. To support this expansion and overall growth, Orvis realigned its servicing centers, and opened a new major customer service and distribution center in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1987. By 1988 Orvis had developed an effective worldwide distribution system with 400 dealers worldwide.
To keep the public abreast of all its new products and services, The Orvis Company launched its own newspaper. The Orvis News grew out of the Record Catch Club, serving as an outlet for the growing number of photographs being submitted by customers. It included sporting and conservation features, worldwide sporting and travel stories, and advertisements for merchandise.
The 1980s were also marked by further research and product development. In 1984 Orvis introduced sporting clays to the United States through its Houston store. In the mid-1980s, the Orvis rod shop unveiled the Ultra Fine, the world’s first two-weight graphite rod. By 1986 gross sales of the company reached $50 million. In 1987 Orvis introduced the first one-weight rod. A year later Orvis became the first in the industry to introduce a 25-year, unconditional fly rod guarantee. In 1989 Orvis rods were named the “No.l Best Made Product of the United States in the 1980s” by Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence.
Leigh Perkins’s son, Leigh “Perk” Perkins, Jr., came to the company just as Baird Hall retired. After his stint as editor of the Orvis News he directed the opening of Orvis’s new retail store in San Francisco, and moved there in 1980 to become its first manager. Perk’ younger brother David also entered the family business soon afterward, first as an instructor in the fishing and shooting schools, and then moving up to the dealer department, which coordinated business between Orvis and its many shops. To become a more important source for all the furnishing of country life, Orvis in the late 1980s purchased Gokey Company, a leading manufacturer of fine hunting boots, shoes, and luggage since 1850. In 1986 the company began its Orvis-Endorsed Lodges, Outfitters, and Guides Program as a recreational sporting outlet for a growing customer base. It defined and set the standard of quality and responsibility for sporting people that carried well into the next decade.
Education and Commitment: The 1990s
If the 1980s were characterized by expansion and innovation, the keywords for the 1990s would be education and commitment. The company went beyond selling products to promoting sporting traditions and the outdoor way of life. Orvis’s mission was embodied in Leigh Perkins’s words, “If we are to benefit from the use of our natural resources, we must be willing to act to preserve them.” Orvis announced a challenge grant to benefit wetlands in the United States and raised more than $200,000 in two years. In 1991, Orvis raised $110,000 to benefit the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. The following year Orvis raised $163,000 in a challenge grant to benefit the Big Blackfoot River in Montana. Soon afterward, Orvis conducted a $100,000 challenge grant to aid in the restoration of Florida Bay. This, of course, generated a good deal of positive publicity for Orvis, whose sales continued to be strong. By 1993, gross sales exceeded $100 million.
In 1992 Leigh H. Perkins named his son “Perk” Perkins as president and CEO of Orvis. A year later Orvis purchased British Fly Reel, the largest single producer of fly reels in the world, securing its international leadership. The Orvis CFO III disc fly reel won the “Best in Show” at the International Fly Tackle Dealer Show. Orvis introduced the Trident series, the first fly rod to use MVR (Maximum Vibration Reduction) technology in 1995. That same year, the company bought and reopened the famed Sandanona Shooting Grounds in Millbrook, New York. In 1997 Orvis acquired a majority share in Redington Fly Rods & Reels of Stuart, Florida, best known for its value-priced, quality rods. Also in 1997, the company reached its $200 million mark in gross sales. The following year, Orvis introduced the Flex Index system to fly rod design, reaffirming its leadership in product design. To expand its influence, the company started a travel business in 1988, offering its customers Fishing Vacations ranging from fly fishing the Chalk Streams of England to salmon fishing on the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Orvis Wingshooting Lodges offered customers the opportunity to hunt everywhere on the continent, from the Barton Ridge Plantation in Rockford, Alabama, to the Diamond J Guest Ranch in Ennis, Montana.
It also persevered in its mission to promote the preservation of the environment through its funding and restoration projects. The company raised public consciousness and taught deeper responsibility to its customers through its newspaper, the Orvis News, and its catalogs reaching over 40 million customers annually. In its growing fishing and wing shooting schools, nearly 3,000 students every year were taught not only the techniques and gear of fishing and shooting, but also the code of ethics and a high standard of sporting philosophy and resource conservation. The schools have been credited with being a major force behind the formalization of an American sporting code.
Throughout its long history, Orvis has stayed the course set by its founder: that of providing quality products to the outdoor sporting world. It also continued in its commitment to the environment. The company was named an “Environmental Leader” by the Direct Marketing Association and regularly donated five percent of its pretax profits to conservation efforts. Along with customer matching programs, this amounted to nearly $1 million raised annually for a wide variety of habitat restoration projects. Orvis also continued to forge partnerships with other conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. As the 21st century approached, it could confidently be said that Orvis was as serious about educating sporting men, women, and children to maintain quality fish and wildlife habitat as it was about growing its business. After all, the two went hand in hand.
Dee, Libby, “Kinsley & Co. Adding Women’s Clothing, Expanding Orvis Shop,” Boulder County Business Report, August 1, 1998.
Fraser, Laura, “The Lure of Fly-Fishing, HealthDate, March-April 1995, p. 42.
Gill, Kathy, “Three Companies Forced to Halt Sales of Knock-off Products,” PR Newswire, February 22, 1999.
“Is the Trident True?,” Outdoor Life, December 1995, p. 80.
“Orvis Freezes Salaries, New Hires: Poor Pre-Holiday Mail-Order Sales Blamed on Global Uncertainty,” Florida Times-Union, October 25, 1998.
“The Orvis Story,” http://www.orvis.com/detail.asp?subject=9&in-dex=1.
“Orvis Will Promote Octoraro Campaign: National Firm Raising Money for Watershed,” Lancaster New Era, December 17, 1997.
“Redington and Frisby Top Offer ‘Smart’ Headwear to Global Fishing Market,” PR Newswire, September 10, 1998.
Towle, Michael D., “Pounding Swords into High-Tech Playthings: Cold War Gadgetry Goes Civilian,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 5, 1998.
Wagner, Wendy, “James Fishing’s Fine River’s Variety Can Please Anyone from Master to Novice,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 2, 1998.
Zheutlin, Alan, “Columbia Sportswear Continues Aggressive Campaign Against Copycats,” CPA Journal, December 1998, p. 58.
—J. D. Fromm