More than Optics: Creating Vortex Nation
Recently, members of Venture Out visited Vortex Optics of Barneveld, Wisconsin. There, we were able to pull back the curtains and take an extended look at what started out as a humble Wild Birds Unlimited that turned into an optics juggernaut. We take a look at what really makes Vortex a leader in the industry with their singular focus on customer care and quality products. Their VIP Warranty created the industry standard and a widely known hallmark of the Vortex Brand. These articles will shed light and showcase the company behind the optics.
As part of our stay, we were able to sit down with Vortex’s Vice President of Sales, Shamus Terry. Shamus has been with the company for over 23 years, starting with the original Wild Birds Unlimited. He has witnessed firsthand the tremendous growth of the company and offers a unique perspective on how Vortex became a leader in customer service.
The Origin: Wild Birds and Eagle Optics
The Hamilton family, while operating a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise, saw a wide margin in available bird watching equipment. Spotting scopes and binoculars did not live up to the demands of their customers. Pending issues with equipment followed a slow warranty process that aggravated the Hamiltons and the end user. To help contend with ongoing issues, the Hamiltons procured their own optics through worldwide manufacturers. This house brand grew into Eagle Optics. Eagle optics, at the time, was one of the larger optics retailers, providing a wide range of products to their customers. The early success of Eagle Optics came from the Hamilton’s years of experience in the retail community. At this point, the Hamiltons were selling optics to more than just bird watchers. Sportsmen and women were coming in to find optics to outfit their hunts. Ultimately, the Hamiltons made the decision to solely focus on optics. As they say, the rest is history.
When talking with Shamus about the origins of Vortex and how that shaped their business model, he believes Vortex held an “advantage over a lot of their competitors because they lived in the retail world for a while.” Their unique perspective on how manufacturers treated their customers gave them the pillars for building an experience that is unparalleled. From that exposure, Vortex was born.
Early Years: Building the Brand
While Vortex today might be in a new HQ facility, their start was something quite different. The optics brand spent their early days in a host of suites within a business strip. As space was needed, they leap-frogged down the line, sometimes with other businesses existing in between. While conditions were tight, this allowed the Vortex team to really hone in on customer service.
The Hamiltons witnessed firsthand the pains the customer goes through when trying to get products warrantied. As an optics brand, they did not want their customers to feel this pain. Everything Vortex made or sold would be 100% warrantied—no questions asked. It was about getting the person back in the field as soon as possible, because if they wouldn’t, someone else would.
With this thought process, the philosophy of Vortex took shape. We are “huge believers that it is one customer at a time,” states Shamus. “That we do our job to make sure they have the tools they need to get out in the field.” Vortex’s philosophy centers around the idea that the stuff they say they are going to do, they actually do. Shamus argued that the challenge of growing bigger is to multiply that idea through the expansion process. The problem was, Vortex kept expanding. Suddenly, over two hundred people were crammed into their old location. A change was needed with the space to grow into an international brand.
The Brand Expands: Ethos in an Amazon World
“We don’t feel that an average experience is a good experience. If you didn’t have a great experience, we didn’t do our job.” Shamus states that the acceleration of Vortex is rooted in its unconditional support of their customer. Everyone at Vortex strives to make the customer experience exceptional. Anybody can create an average experience, but Vortex wants to elevate and provide a peak experience. To do so, they hire people that have customer service in their blood with a will to shovel snow.
Vortex’s shovel snow mentality—meaning no job or task is beneath anyone—provides a blueprint for the type of person they look for. “We are not a hierarchy driven organization,” states Shamus. “If you call in, regardless of if you get the owner on the phone or an employee that started six weeks ago, the whole goal is they should be able to take care of you. There shouldn’t be this insane chain of command to take care of the customer.” Shamus then chuckles, “I’ve never been faulted for doing too much for the customer.” At Vortex, no one person is bigger than the company. Everyone works together to build it. If there is trash laying in the parking lot, pick it up.
As the company moved into a much larger space, one that rivals colleges and universities, Vortex leaned into what got them there: their employees. “I don’t think that there is a place that cares about their employees more than Vortex. We focus on peoples’ strengths and getting them into the right places.” A staff of 200 grew into over 400 full-time employees. A larger staff requires more resources and training. However, Vortex found a way to expedite that process. “We don’t train a nice staff; we hire nice people. Get the right people on the bus and the bus will get you to where you want to go.” Shamus further adds that “my job is immensely easy because we have really really talented people that we are surrounded by.”
The Future: Creating an Edge while being at the Tip of the Spear
Now that Vortex is settled into their new space, a look tothe future begins. “My ultimate goal is to have 24-hour customer service,” states Shamus. “We have grown as a worldwide brand. It’s become a big part of our business. My goal is that if you get off after third shift and its four in the morning that when you call, someone will pick up the phone. That’s my goal. We always want to be available to our customers. A lot of people think that, but we actually believe it.” That growth can be seen through their international partners. From PRS shooters to 3-gun competitors, and acclaimed international hunters, the Vortex brand can be seen everywhere. That means they service their products across the world. While the United States has a thriving firearms community, hunters and shooters exist across the planet. Vortex wants to make sure those customers are part of Vortex Nation—no matter the time zone.
As the company’s reach expands, so does their product line. Vortex really listens to their retailer and customer feedback. They pay attention to what people say on forums and on the phone so Vortex can deliver a product that the people want, not a product that Vortex wants to force onto them. That means Vortex will solely focus on optics and not branch out into other avenues. As the company grows the goal is to stay focused on “who we really are and what’s really important to us and use that to drive us in the future.”
Part of that drive includes SPEAR—Vortex’s military development side. As advancements are made through SPEAR, Vortex will translate that technology to the commercial market. A look at history shows that technological expansion occurred through government programs (like NASA) or military procurement. SPEAR allows Vortex to take risks and push boundaries, though when I asked about plasma rifles and heat-seeking aiming devices, I received crossed looks.
In Closing: Vortex Nation
“We want to be the industry leader in customer service. We actually just want to be the best at customer service, not just in our industry.” Shamus further simplifies it as: “Be the best overall.” Visiting Vortex and talking with Shamus really expanded who and what Vortex is. Besides delivering quality products at affordable prices and having a great warranty, they are company that believes in what they do. More importantly, they want their customers to believe in them. That is why they strive to be better. It is easy to order something on Amazon without giving thought in who you are buying from; just look at how many stars it has then one click buying. But for the people that need more out of their product, wether in the field, on the range, or in the line of duty, Vortex has your back. They are the company YOU can believe in.