This interview with MidwayUSA CEO and founder Larry Potterfield is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.
The tale of MidwayUSA’s rise to outdoor industry prominence is perhaps the quintessential American success story. From a small start-up gun shop in Columbia, Missouri, Larry Potterfield built the business into a sprawling online retailer. It all started with a little vision, enthusiasm, and perhaps a bit of 8mm Japanese pistol ammunition.
“We have been in business since the 18th of June 1977, so this is our 37th year in business,” Larry told me. “We carry just about everything for shooters, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts. Not everything, but just about everything.”
At this point you might ask what this all has to do with conservation. The odds are that you can go to just about any major conservation group in the country and they will have nothing but praise for Larry and his wife Brenda, who are recognized as two of the largest individual donors to the conservation movement in America.
“MidwayUSA is a very successful company so the family tends to be very generous,” Larry shared. “Brenda and I look for causes that we can support that will have an impact on the future. Conservation is one of those causes.”
Just how generous is the Potterfield family? Larry said that he and Brenda spend about half their annual income on promoting conservation, shooting, and other charity programs. As the heads of an international wholesaler, this is not an insignificant sum.
“As the MidwayUSA company became successful, as Brenda and I really had income beyond our own needs, we started thinking about what we should do with all that extra money,” Larry said. “It’s not something that most human beings would have to worry about, so we’re blessed to be in the very small minority of people who can give away significant amounts of money.
“The questions was, where do you give it to? It’s not something you can Google up and have the internet answer for you. In the end it’s up to you as an individual to figure out how to change the future in the way you want to change it.”
Larry described himself as a poor country teenager who grew up in a family of eight near Ely, Missouri. While his family didn’t have much money, Larry treasured the outdoors—and shooting and hunting in particular. His first gun was a Stevens 12 gauge single-shot that Larry received from his older brother, and he was enthralled with the shooting and hunting magazines his family was subscribed to. He recognized that to preserve the future of hunting and shooting, more young people had be exposed to the outdoors like he was.
“In terms of why young people get into the sport or don’t, we have six grandkids that all grew up with the opportunity to hunt. When they’re young they follow the adults mostly because they really don’t get a vote. When they come into their teens and adulthood, they may not want to do those things. But they have the exposure to hunting, fishing, and shooting. I think it’s really a matter of having mentors.”
Young people who already have “outdoor mentors” have that exposure, but not everyone has that chance. Not every family hunts, fishes, or hits the range, especially in urban areas.
“Our daughter shot in college on the Colorado State shotgun team. That was a really great thing for her and for the four years she was in school she was on the team. So we said, ‘Why don’t we help fund shooting teams?’ We looked around and we saw there wasn’t really any funding so we realized a need. We set up the MidwayUSA Foundation in 2004 to raise money for high school and college shooting teams.”
Larry estimated there to be about 3,200 active scholastic shooting teams in the United States, which roughly accounts for about 12 percent of all high schools and colleges in the nation. Of those 3,200 teams, 1,800 have an account with the MidwayUSA Foundation and receive regular funding.
The Potterfields’ other program for youth, the Youth Wildlife Conservation Experience, brings thousands of young people into contact with key conservation groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation and Dallas Safari Club. They are given the opportunity to speak firsthand with professional guides, biologists, and outfitters.
“What we want to do is to get kids into these key conservation groups so they can see what they do, and perhaps identify their futures,” Larry said.
The Dallas Safari Club received the first donation of $400,000 to run the program in perpetuity. For about $20,000 every year, the club can bus in 500 kids to their convention where they will enjoy a meal and learn a little about what conservation means. The program has since grown to involve other organizations and a total donation amount of about $2.8 million.
“That money is there forever. It’ll bring in about 2,800 kids a year that will be introduced to wildlife conservation that otherwise wouldn’t be,” Larry said. “By doing this we were able to piggyback on what these conservation groups were already doing and push them a little bit more towards the youth. We see investing in youth as a matter of investing in the future of conservation in America.”
You can hear Larry talk about the program below:
It is also a way of giving back to an industry that the Potterfields have been so successful in. MidwayUSA began as a 1,600-square-foot gun store named Ely Arms. There was a small collection of about 50 or so firearms—both new and old—and some reloading supplies. At the time Larry was running the shop with his younger brother Jerry, and the first major project the brothers tackled was selling 8mm Nambu pistol cartridges. Jerry left in 1980, when the shop first began to ship the Nambu ammo. By 1987, the business was doing about $5 million in catalog sales.
Larry said that these days things are a little bit less frantic, and he gets more free time to work on projects outside of business.
“MidwayUSA has a great senior team. It’s just a very well-run organization and it does not require me as CEO to be on top of everything all the time.”
Get a look inside MidwayUSA’s distribution center below:
Larry spends some of that time doing public speaking, and also writing short stories about when his dad was teaching him how to hunt and fish back on the farm.
“It preserves the stories for the future. I’m not sure how long the Internet will last, but I’m going to guess a really long time. My kids get to read them, my grandkids get to read them, all our customers get to read them. My dad always talked about things and my grandpa always brought up stories, so mine will be written down.”
You can read Larry’s short stories on the MidwayUSA website here.
We would like to thank Larry for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership President Whit Fosburgh.
Image courtesy Larry Potterfield