LENNY LARIVEE has spent 68 percent of his 69 years on this planet doing the same thing: making guns. And he’s made them all for one company, Savage Arms in Westfield, just off Exit 3 on the Mass. Pike. He’s tall and bald, with a voice that is low and a speaking style that is John Wayne-slow. He is also a cantankerous character. Newcomers who stop by his bench expecting to find a senior statesman are usually startled to hear his opening line: “You don’t like what I say? Stay the eff away.”
Larivee has seen it all. How the $1.25 he made per hour in 1965 shot up to $22.50 an hour by 1971, factoring in piecework incentives. How years of bad management forced the company into bankruptcy protection in 1988, when 800 employees walked out of the factory with their tools on a Friday afternoon and only 100 were invited back on Monday morning — and for substantially less pay. How the company was living week to week for a long time, with its straight-talking new leader, Ron Coburn, telling his remaining employees: “Don’t cash your check until I say the money’s in the bank.” Looking back on it now, Larivee admits, “I never thought we’d make it.”
Today, as he repairs the damaged crown on a rifle, the factory around him is humming. Savage Arms, the century-old pioneer that had deteriorated to the point where it was mocked as “Salvage Arms” and left for dead, now can’t keep up with demand. Its year-over-year growth was 50 percent in 2011, 40 percent in 2012, and is on pace to pack on another 40 percent in 2013. The company is running round-the-clock shifts on weekdays and has added one on Saturdays. It has about 415 employees in Westfield, nearly double the number from just three years ago and part of a companywide workforce of 740. And it is racing to hire more. The Westfield factory made and shipped more than 350,000 guns in 2012, while also distributing another 300,000 that were made at Savage’s Canadian plant or by the vendors in China and Turkey that produce the company’s cheaper Stevens brand weapons. One company projection calls for the Westfield plant to be producing 650,000 guns by 2015 and distributing more than 1 million in total.
While Larivee’s machinist’s union wage hasn’t returned to its 1971 peak, it has climbed back up to $17.10 an hour. It’s enough, he says, to afford “a new car every four years and have my house paid for,” something for which he has thanked Coburn, who just retired as CEO, every year at Christmas. Base hourly wages on the factory floor now range from $14 for subassembly work to $25 for licensed electricians. And depending on how profitably the factory was able to turn out its product in the previous month — posting high production numbers with low scrap and limited overtime — employees can see their monthly pay goosed by 4, 5, or even 9 percent.
Larivee confidently answers all questions, except for one. How can a company like Savage be thriving in high-cost unionized Massachusetts, when we were all led to believe manufacturing was firmly in New England’s past? “I don’t understand why it’s happening,” he says. “No, I don’t.”
Savage is probably the most dramatic example of what’s going on in “Gun Valley,” the swath of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut where industrial gun making in America began. Anchored by Colt in Hartford and Smith & Wesson in Springfield, the Connecticut River Valley remains home to dozens of firearms manufacturers and suppliers. Gun sales are soaring across the nation, with many manufacturers having posted record profits in 2012. And no matter where you fall on the gun debate, there’s no argument that this expansion has very real economic implications for a struggling region. There’s even a chance that the current boom could see guns reprise their role from two centuries ago, powering the growth of other high-skill manufacturing throughout the area.
Although California and Texas are home to more gun-related jobs, Connecticut and Massachusetts rank fourth and fifth in total economic output from this industry, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms trade association. And when it comes to average pay packages for those in the industry, Connecticut and Massachusetts occupy the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, at $71,123 and $65,386, boosted by all the executive salaries at those corporate headquarters. The fact that the foundation is based in Newtown, Connecticut, speaks to both the region’s historic connection to guns and the way the school massacre could reshape the future. The carnage in Newtown came at the end of an assault rifle, and Connecticut expanded its ban on those weapons as part of its sweeping new gun measures passed earlier in April. Even though Savage produces rifles and shotguns for hunting and target shooting and does not make assault rifles or handguns, it is subject to the same winds blowing around the wider gun world. Continued...