How does a hobby grow into a multi-million dollar business? For a local weapon manufacturer, it happened when opportunity met preparation and a core group of people believed in one man’s dream.
Marty Daniel describes himself as a “gun guy.” Tall, lanky and unassuming, the Savannah native grew up tinkering with machines and parts, intrigued by the mechanics of firearms and fascinated by how things work and what was needed to keep them working. As he got older, Daniel channeled his interests into Daniel Overhead Doors and Fireplaces, a business that still stands after 20 years. But a new company targeting a completely different market has now replaced the businessman’s former mainstay. Operating from a new manufacturing facility off I-16 in northern Bryan County, Daniel is taking the world’s assault rifle industry by storm.
Daniel’s unexpected success began in the late ‘90s, when he became frustrated with the way his personal M4 carbine rifle (a short, modern version of the famous M16) hung on his shoulder. The problem, a friend pointed out, lay in the way the strap, or sling, attached to the gun. Daniel cut off the loop that attached the sling to the weapon, moved it to a different spot, and welded it back on. To his surprise, the new strap positioning erased Daniel’s previous complaint; the gun fit perfectly.
Soon after his initial realization, Daniel began manufacturing other parts for his weapons and for those of a few friends. “I’d realize, this is a part I want that is not available anywhere else,” remembers Daniel. “So I’ll build it for myself, sell a few extras, and that’ll give me some money for some more cool gun stuff. So it was just supporting the hobby.” He operated his tiny gun business from a cabinet inside the garage and overhead door operation.
But soon, Daniel wanted to replace another part on his favorite semiautomatic rifle. He wanted to purchase a rail—a custom grip that replaces the factory-made hand guard underneath the barrel. From the rail, a variety of attachments can be suspended—from laser sights and flashlights to grenade launchers and infrared devices. Yet, according to Daniel, when he called the best-known manufacturer in the businesses, they blew him off. So, true to form, he started making his own rails. Less than a year later, when the U.S. Navy announced a proposal request from rail manufacturers interested in making the next generation of the specialty part, Daniel put in a bid and won.
“That kind of put us on the board as a competitor in the parts business,” he says. Today, Daniel’s company, Daniel Defense manufacturers every M4 rifle rail used by the U.S. military’s Special Operations troops, including Navy Seals, and Army Rangers, Green Berets, and Delta Force soldiers. They also make rails for all rifles used by the British military.
“We were taking parts that were on the market and saying, ‘what could be better about this?’” says Daniel of his company’s early edge. “It wasn’t so much a matter that we imitated everybody else; we looked at what everybody else did and found a better way to do it. And the customers responded to that.”
The news is filled with stories of firearm retailers experiencing a windfall in sales since November 2008, thanks to some consumers’ fear that the current administration in Washington will curtail gun rights, but Daniel’s success is much more than coincidence and timing. Daniel hired his first employee in 2004. Now his new facility on Highway 280 off I-16 in northern Brian County houses 125 workers. “There’s always some convincing to do,” Daniel says, “but the people that I’ve surrounded myself with are believers. They believe in me. They say, ‘We’re going to do something,’ and they do it. They’re on board.”
Daniel tells a story about one current employee who made an interesting pitch to get hired: “He called me up and said, ‘Hey, Mr. Daniel, I’m working at Home Depot. I like your products, and if you let me come over there and learn something, I’ll work for free.’ I said, ‘Well come on and go to work, but I’m going to pay you.’ He’s been a part of the team ever since.” Daniel adds that a lot of his team’s enthusiasm comes from the fact that they like what they’re making. “We have a lot of gun guys here,” he laughs.
Recently, the Daniel Defense team took its game to a new level, taking on the task of assembling completed M4 rifles. As Daniel explains it, the new enterprise began with a meeting of key employees in the conference room. “I sat them down,” he recounts, “and I said, ‘Hey guys, I want to build rifles, and I want to have that done in time for the big trade show in January. I need to have you all on board.’ And everybody raised their hand and said, ‘Let’s do it.’” At the show, Daniel remembers, “We knew it was going well, and we were counting orders in the car on the way home, and it was like, wow, we sold 8,000 weapons in four days! We’ve got some work to do!”
Daniel Defense’s staff includes people who specialize in everything from clerical work to hands-on tasks. The one thing that seems to tie the entire team together, however, is an intense interest in the finished product—high-quality semiautomatic weapons—and the customers who will be using them.
Controller Kelly Knight has a background in accounting at a variety of Savannah-area businesses but says he hasn’t really believed in a company for which he worked until now. “There is something about people actually liking your product that makes you want to come to work,” he explains. “There’s something about having pride in what you’re making. I’m not on the manufacturing side, but I still consider myself part of the manufacturing process. This is my product. This is what we’re putting out to the public, and the change has just been very welcomed.”
Jason Smith works on the factory floor, assembling, double-checking, and test-firing completed M4 rifles. Smith describes the workplace environment as flexible, hands-on and devoted to detail. “No dings, no scratches, that sort of thing,” he says, are allowed to make it to market. “There are a lot of eyes that look at each part, a lot of hands on it. They check very closely.”
Smith also enjoys the products he builds every day. “I love guns, and working here has actually carried that to a whole new level. I’d never fired one of these before I started working here, and then I got to build my own rifle.” Smith says he shoots his M4 on weekends for relaxation and stress relief. “These weapons are a blast to shoot,” he says. “It’s awesome.”
As the “face of Daniel Defense,” sales representative John Holland presents the product to the customer and precisely represents the company’s target audience. The Marine Corps reservist and Iraq War veteran is preparing to don his uniform again soon and deploy to Afghanistan for at least nine months. But he knows that when he returns, his bosses at Daniel Defense will “welcome me with open arms, just like I’d never been gone.”
Prior to assuming his current role in sales and customer service, Holland supervised one of Daniel’s military contracts. As a Marine, he takes special pride in the quality and attention to detail Daniel Defense lavishes on each weapon and part it manufactures. “I told my guys that they needed to make it like they were making it for themselves,” Holland boasts. “You can’t slack off on it and cut corners, because people’s lives are going to depend on these weapons. If there’s a scratch on it, we’re not going to send it out. Of course, we get that mainly from Marty. He’s really meticulous about everything he does, and it kind of rubs off on everyone else here.”
Apparently, that attention to detail is paying off. Holland says, “We’ll get e-mails from guys in the field who say, ‘I used this rail in Afghanistan or Iraq, and it’s great.’ It is a good feeling. I know they’re getting used, and that makes me appreciate it more.” Daniel agrees. “I feel like we’re doing our part to give our guys what they need to win and, I think, to come home.”
Presently, the team at Daniel Defense is working to expand its growing business in complete weapon manufacturing and each new move is bringing the business further success. But with more than two decades of business ownership under his belt, Marty Daniel knows things could change in no time.
“Everything eventually cycles, and this business will eventually cycle down as well,” he reasons. “I need to be prepared for that.” If the past is any guide, by the time that happens, Daniel will already have something else up his sleeve.
The Product: Daniel Defense M4 Carbine
Description: Using 3D engineering technology, and a high speed production facility with state of the art machining equipment, Daniel Defense is now producing its own M4 Carbine with the goal of redefining the benchmark in small arms performance. In addition to being precision crafted to military specifications, this firearm also features the Daniel Defense Omega X Rail.
Marty Daniel’s Secrets for Success
We asked Daniel Defense founder and CEO Marty Daniel to give some thought to the steps taken to ensure the prosperity of his business.
Start young. According to Daniel, if you want your preschooler to make it big, get them started by watching educational TV programs that teach kids to solve problems and develop can-do attitudes. When the middle school years roll around, engage them in games like Monopoly so they learn to manage cash flow, or chess so they can teach themselves to always look a few moves ahead. In high school and college, he advises, “Get a job and learn how to work hard.”
Surround yourself with great people. This applies no matter what your age. According to Daniel, it’s especially important for youngsters to pick the right cohorts, but it’s equally essential for adults to build supportive and positive networks of friends.
Do something you love to do. Daniel Defense grew out of a hobby. Marty Daniel is proof that if you focus on something you care about, it will be a lot easier to make others care too.
Give something back. For Daniel, a man of faith, this takes the form of giving a regular tithe, or ten percent of his income, to his local church.
The bottom line. “Take things a step at a time, use your mind and you can do anything. The real challenge is identifying the actual problems. If something is not going the way it needs to go, find out what’s the real problem. Usually, it’s because you haven’t identified the root problem and broken it down into steps you can solve.”
Tags: Business, Daniel Defense, guns, military, success