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‘We are under attack’: Smith & Wesson CEO says gun legislation forced move away from Springfield

The Smith & Wesson corporate headquarters and manufacturing plant in Springfield. (Patrick Johnson / The Republican/TNS)
October 12, 2021

 Smith & Wesson president and CEO Mark Smith says the company doesn’t want to make an enemy of the state of Massachusetts.

But he feels at least some lawmakers have made an enemy of Smith & Wesson with legislation that would ban the manufacture in Massachusetts of firearms that are unlawful to sell here.

Mark Smith is the president and CEO of Smith & Wesson (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican/TNS)

The legislation is a response to mass shootings involving semiautomatic rifles made by Smith & Wesson and other companies. Advocates say high-capacity magazines and high rates of fire make the guns too dangerous for civilian hands.

“We are under attack by the state of Massachusetts,” Smith said Friday.

CEO for two years and operations director for a decade before that, Smith gave a tour of the bustling, half-million-square-foot factory a day after announcing the company would move its headquarters and 550 jobs in production and management to gun-friendly Maryville, Tennessee. It’s not a move the company wanted to make, he said.

It will cost $125 million “that I didn’t want to spend,” Smith said.

Riding a wave of brisk gun sales, mostly to first time-buyers, Smith & Wesson said revenue hit $1.1 billion in the most recent fiscal year, up from $529.6 million a year earlier.

An employee forging carbon steel in 2200 degree heat at Smith & Wesson (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican/TNS)

“Why would I disrupt that?” he said.

Workers at the plant at 2100 Roosevelt Ave. joked and laughed Friday, but also spoke in hushed tones about their own futures and whether they will move.

A team from Tennessee will be in Springfield next week recruiting Smith & Wesson employees, selling them on the idea of relocating. About two-thirds of the Springfield jobs being moved, some 400, are blue collar.

Smith & Wesson said it is relocating a total of 750 jobs to Tennessee from Springfield and its other sites. The company is also closing a plastics factory in Connecticut and a Missouri distribution center it opened in 2019.

Construction in Maryville is expected to begin later in 2021 and be substantially complete by the summer of 2023. No employees will move for two years.

A substantial operation will stay in Springfield, including the forge, machine shop and revolver assembly. There will still be 1,000 jobs here, many of them highly skilled and high-paying, the company said.

One of the parts manufactured at Smith & Wesson in Springfield. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican/TNS)

In just more than three years when the transition is complete, Smith & Wesson’s revolvers will still be manufactured here and stamped “Springfield, Massachusetts.” But the company’s semiautomatic rifles — the industry calls them modern sporting rifles while opponents say assault rifles — and semiautomatic pistols will be made in Tennessee.

News reports from Tennessee said Smith & Wesson may buy the land for only $1. It is part of a larger incentive package that includes seven-year tax abatement that could result in about $8 million in company savings, according to sources The Daily Times granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the deal.

Smith & Wesson said its move was prompted by legislation proposed earlier this year by Springfield state Rep. Bud L. Williams and others that would outlaw part of its manufacturing business. That includes feeding devices capable of containing 10 or more rounds, trigger pulls requiring pressure less than 10 pounds, threaded barrels that accept silencers and other military-looking hardware.

“They are moving their headquarters. That’s what corporate does. We are trying to save lives,” Williams said this week.

John Rosenthal, a co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence, which backs the bill, said Thursday’s announcement came the same day as the fourth-anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting where a gunman fired on a concert crowd. Fifty-eight people were killed that night, and two others died later. More than 850 were injured.

The shooter in the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, used a Smith & Wesson semiautomatic rifle to kill 17 people and injure 17 others.

“My friend lost his son at Parkland,” said Rosenthal, a businessman who describes himself as a recreational gun owner.

As far as reacting to Smith & Wesson’s decision and the loss of jobs: “Three cheers for democracy,” Rosenthal said.

He said Smith & Wesson had been moving jobs out of the state for years and that it was just seeking a lower cost of doing business.

The news release Smith & Wesson sent out would lead people to believe that the cost of doing business was a factor. It made reference to Tennessee’s cost of living and “business friendly” environment, usually code words for low taxes and less regulation.

It also made general statements about respect for the Second Amendment. Blount County, Tennessee, declared itself a Second Amendment “sanctuary” last year.

A gun industry lobbying group called Smith & Wesson’s move part of a migration of gunmakers to states that “respect firearm industry contributions.” Gun parts manufacturer Troy Industries of West Springfield announced earlier this year it will move to Tennessee also.

But Smith said Friday that it was the proposed law that prompted the move. The products the legislation singles out are what consumers want, and they make up 60% percent of Smith & Wesson’s sales, he said. Limiting those products for sale to the military or law enforcement isn’t feasible because Smith & Wesson’s share of those markets is too small.

Smith — no relation to the company co-founder — said it doesn’t matter that the proposal is just a bill, one of dozens filed each year that often don’t get a hearing, much less a vote on Beacon Hill.

“Honestly, we know we could have defeated it this session,” Smith said. “But it will be back the next session and the session after that.”

It will take years to move the operation, he said. So if the company waited for the bill to pass, it’d be too late.

“I just can’t operate with that big a risk hanging over the company,” he said. “We only started this process once the bill was filed. Then and only then.”

Once Smith and his executives decided they had to move, they found it made sense to close the Missouri and Connecticut plants as well and consolidate some operations in Tennessee.

The plastic parts from Deep River, Connecticut, go into the rifles and pistols, so that needs to be near the assembly lines. The distribution system needed to move from Missouri.

“But it was the need to move from this law that triggered all the other discussions,” Smith said. “We didn’t want to do this.”

The forges, giant steel hammers that shape aluminum or carbon steel, pounding parts out of metal blocks, are hard to move. So are hundreds of computer numerical control milling machines used to shape the metal. That’s why they’ll stay in Springfield.

Revolvers don’t have attributes targeted by the proposed law, so work assembling them will also stay here. It’s painstaking work that takes a great deal of training and experience. Assemblers dry-fire the weapons and adjust them based on the sound of the metallic click until they get it just right. It’s why the jobs that are staying are so highly paid.

“If I was doing this to save a dime, why would I leave the highest-paid jobs behind?” Smith said. “We love Springfield. We love Mayor (Domenic J.) Sarno. We didn’t want to leave.”

But Smith also said Smith & Wesson had been running out of space in Springfield for years. Moving some assembly work out frees up space so it no longer has to rent storage space. Moving offices around means more space for more CNC machines, possibly, in the future.

Smith & Wesson had been hiring in Springfield, but all the jobs that are moving are currently filled. Smith said the company will need to keep hiring for Springfield in the future to keep the 1,000 jobs filled as well.

Some workers whose jobs are not moving have asked to relocate anyway. That’ll open up a Springfield position for someone on the relocation list who wants to stay.

“We want to take as many of our workers with us as we can,” he said.

Smith & Wesson is offering relocation incentives, Smith said, including a wage “freeze.” Wage scales are different in Tennessee, he said. The cost of living is 15% less than the national average. In Massachusetts it’s 35% higher.

The proposition is to hold a relocating worker’s current rate of pay even if they earn more than workers hired in Tennessee. The workers hired from Tennessee will get raises until they are making what the cohort that relocated are earning, and then everyone will get raises.

Jeff Muir, communications director for Blount Partnership, a chamber of commerce and development organization in Maryville, said the team headed north next month will include economic development specialists, a workforce expert and probably the region’s tourism promotion person.

“The message is to highlight the area,” he said. “We are going to be talking about what it’s like to raise your family here. We are going to talk about residential prospects, what housing is like.”

Muir said the region sells itself as an outdoor recreation hub close to Knoxville, with the University of Tennessee, and to Nashville.

“Our pitch, at least in Blount County, is that we are the peaceful side of the Smokies,” he said. “Get a cabin and enjoy the mountains peacefully. It’s just a way to get away and relax in a calm area.”

Local employers are already reaching out with job opportunities for Smith & Wesson workers who cannot or don’t want to relocate.

David Cruise, president and CEO of the MassHire regional employment board of Hampden County, said manufacturers, especially smaller companies, are looking for help right now.


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