Family Culture and Innovation: An Interview with Steve Hornady
Fellow hunters and shooters, customers, and employees — they’re all pretty much the same to Steve Hornady: they’re like family. Amid the constant buzz of spirited conversation and laughter of the 2020 Dallas Safari Club (DSC) Convention stood Steve, who tended to celebrities, staff, and customers crowding the Hornady Manufacturing Company booth.
International Sportsman sat down with Steve Hornady and two of his key staff at DSC to learn what makes Hornady a leader within the industry. Here is what we learned:
A Brief History
It all started with Steve’s father, Joyce Hornady, and his sporting goods company, offering gear for such sports as baseball, basketball, and tennis. But in 1949, in the wake of World War II, a new, seemingly far-fetched business was in order; ammunition.
As it turned out, this was an era in which demand for hunting ammunition was high. There was certainly a good supply of surplus bullets, cases, and machine tools. An avid shooter, Hornady wasted no time acquiring an assembly press and began ammo production in a converted auto body shop.
The race was on. During the 1950s, growth dictated that he brings on a staff of sales representatives (a task he had been handling alone). Entering the decade of the ‘60s, Hornady refined the quality of his ammo and offered bullets ranging from .22 caliber to .45 caliber. Additionally, the company tripled its manufacturing space, increased staffing, and acquired an inventory of the best machine tools available.
Having tackled bullets and reloading, Hornady went on to making cartridge cases as well. This proved to be a smart strategy.
“Making cases turned out to be one of the bigger things we’ve done because it allowed us to work with gun companies and come up with more cartridges. It gets people talking about you, and we just built off that,” Steve said.
Steve joined the business in 1970, entering a decade not only marked by expansion into the reloading sector but also the production of innovations like the “InterLock” bullet design. A new and rewarding era was underway.
During this growth and innovation, in 1981, Joyce Hornady, Engineer Edward Heers, and Customer Service Manager Jim Garber were tragically killed when the company plane crashed en route to SHOT Show in New Orleans. As the family regrouped from the shock of this sudden loss, Steve Hornady assumed the role of President of the company.
A New Beginning and the Family Culture
Today, along with his son Jason and a contingent of more than 150 employees, Steve Hornady leads the largest independently owned manufacturer of bullets, ammunition, and tools in the world. Its Grand Island, Neb. facility occupies more than 145,000 square feet – leaps and bounds bigger than the humble auto body shop of more than 70 years ago.
Steve has worked in and around the company from his earliest years, and he would have it no other way.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was 14. There was really no question whether I would join the company,” he said.
With several successful products and patents, Hornady Manufacturing has enjoyed success in the hunting and shooting industry over a long period. While a lot of the success stems from its pioneering products and manufacturing processes, the company’s culture also plays an important role.
At the forefront of the company’s philosophy and culture is family. Steve looks to his father’s influence in setting the tone for how he interacts with staff and customers.
“I adopted the Hornaday family culture you see today from my dad. Dad would always say, “Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still,” Steve said. “It used to drive me crazy, but the reality is that he was right. It doesn’t work very well to be a tyrant.”
He adds, “I have been more influenced by not doing what some other leaders do, that is being controlling or having a short temper when people don’t do as they’re told.”
“I consider us to be a fairly gentle company,” Steve said. “It’s a collective. We seem to attract those with our values, interests, and work ethic.”
The company has many end-users within its ranks, and new product ideas often come from the employees themselves. Many are accomplished hunters and competitive shooters. It’s not uncommon for them to share time in the field and on the range. This fellowship fosters company success.
“What’s cool is coming up with products the customer didn’t even know they needed. Those are the home runs”, said Hornady Marketing Director Neil Davies.
Accurate, Deadly, Dependable
Hornady’s contributions to the hunting and shooting world wouldn’t be possible without effective marketing and customer service. The original company slogan, “Accurate, Deadly, Dependable” has been around from the very beginning.
“I suspect the slogan came from my Aunt Francis. She worked for an ad agency in Chicago and handled our advertising until the mid-sixties,” Steve said.
The consistent innovation speaks for itself, with the company helping to develop many popular cartridges such as the lightning-fast .17 HMR and powerful .375 Ruger. But, Hornady Manufacturing also is adept at communicating with its customers.
“It’s no longer good enough to build a better mousetrap. You’ve got to tell people about it,” Steve said.
With a team full of hunters and shooters, the company can nimbly respond to customer feedback through a natural connection. This connection extends to both end-users and dealers, the folks who use and stock the products. Hornady views these individuals as a crucial source of information.
Likewise, Hornady Manufacturing partners with celebrity pro-staff, including Fred Eichler, Larry Weishuhn (Mr. Whitetail), Jerry Miculek, and Jim Shockey – accomplished hunters and shooters with vast media platforms and consumer reach.
“We have an obligation to show our products, and these are the guys who can do it. They’re also an important part of our family,” Steve said.
Meeting Customer Demand Through Innovation
Whether driven by the company or market demand, Hornady Manufacturing has had a hand in many innovations in the hunting and shooting world.
For example, Zombie Max ammunition was designed to address the zombie shooting craze. Likewise, other cartridges were developed for the increasingly popular long-range shooting market. Hornady has seen it all. Some products that don’t hit it big resulted in something else.
There is no better example than what came from the .30 TC cartridge that Hornady developed for Thompson Center Arms. Released in 2007, Thompson Center had hoped to have a 308 Winchester length round with 30-06 Springfield performance. With low customer acceptance, it didn’t come to fruition. But what did happen was a cartridge that would become one of the most popular long-range calibers. The company proved that something positive usually comes from innovation, even if in an indirect way.
“From that cartridge came the 6.5 Creedmoor, and we all know how popular that’s been. It’s now a staple. It also shaped the 308 Marlin, among others,” Steve said.
“You see it in different ways – some products are quickly a big success, some result in a niche product, and others lead to something significant somewhere else. The key is to learn from all of them. If you do, nothing is a complete loss,” Steve said.
The Hunter and Advocate
Steve’s biggest passions are shotgun sports like trap and skeet shooting, as well as hunting sheep and goats. He considers some of his favorite hunts to be unsuccessful ones, including one that landed him in a Russian prison.
“That’s a whole different interview in itself,” he said, chuckling and demurring from sharing any details.
Among his most unique excursions was a polar bear hunt. Here, he described the Cambridge Bay area of Canada, the frigid temperatures, and even the challenges of going to the bathroom in sub-zero conditions.
“A mountain’s a mountain, a desert’s a desert, but there is nothing quite like the polar region. The Cambridge Bay area is about as far as you can go in Canada. It’s 20-below, and when it’s 40-below, you can tell. Going to the bathroom is interesting. You’ve got to take everything off, and there are no seats,” said Hornady, smiling.
And the hunt is quite unique and challenging as well.
“It’s basically a ride and glass kind of hunt. By law, the hunter has to ride in a sled, and I rode along with the guide and the tent. It’s fascinating watching the dogs work. You hunt areas like pressure ridges where seals are likely to be. That’s one way to find the bears.”
Steve continues to actively promote the hunting and shooting lifestyle and encourages individuals to introduce new people to the sport.
“We support a lot of organizations, but the best thing any of us can do often happens on an individual level. If you get the opportunity to take someone hunting or shooting, do it!” he said.
Additionally, he is quick to point out the importance of the message we send regarding hunting, shooting, and the outdoors.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there on social media and in the mainstream media. For example, trophy hunters are portrayed so poorly and inaccurately,” Steve said. “As hunters and shooters, we have to continue to get our message out there about the true nature of what we do.”
We of course had to ask a creator of ammunition what his favorite caliber is to shoot:
Based in Texas, Jerald Kopp is President of 1st Light Hunting Journal. His articles cover a variety of topics about hunting and the outdoor lifestyle. Jerald is an avid outdoorsman with deer hunting and whitetails being by far his greatest passion. He was introduced to hunting and fishing at an early age and has been enjoying it for 40+ years. In 2005, he established the Empowerment Outfitter Network (EON) – a faith-based non-profit organization that provides hunting opportunities for disabled and terminally-ill children and youth. When not hunting, he spends his time traveling and enjoying life with Amy, his wife of over 30 years. Jerald and Amy have two adult daughters and a son-in-law.