Meeting Terry Korth

I drive south from my hotel in Calgary for about 45 minutes and park in front of a low-rise building surrounded by fields. It’s 9:45 a.m. on the last Monday in January and I’m here to meet Terry Korth, the owner and chief executive officer of one of Canada’s largest distributors of guns and ammunition.

I don’t quite know what a distributor is, but the company’s website says it sells more than a dozen iconic brands including Leupold, Hornady, Glock, Ruger and Kimber. I also know that somewhere in this building is a shooting range.

Twelve hours earlier, I didn’t think I’d be here.

I met Korth for the first time the day before at his company’s booth at Canada’s main trade show for the firearm industry, held in Calgary over two days in late January. Korth Group Ltd. was the lead sponsor of the event for the third year.

After chatting for a few minutes about the market and the shooters’ rights movement, he invited me to visit his office and target range the next day. I was ecstatic. We exchanged cards and he said he’d contact me later with the details.

No News

As I was winding down around 10 p.m., no news. I figured something had come up or he had changed his mind. Then at 10:50 p.m., my e-mail dinged. It was him. He said he misplaced my card, and asked if we’re still on.

Are you kidding, of course we’re on! I flew to Calgary for the trade expo organized by the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association, the country’s main industry group, and this side trip could be the best part! (I keep all this to myself.) We went back and forth to confirm details, and his last e-mail landed at 1:10 a.m.

Back in front of his building, the front door is locked so I ring the buzzer. Korth gets to the door before his receptionist and welcomes me. I learn later that he had already driven up to Calgary to drop off his daughter at the trade show so she could work the front desk, and then driven back to the office. Does this man sleep?

Distributors and Dealers

Korth walks me through the office, introducing me to everyone we meet, from those in the corridor, to people in the kitchen grabbing snacks, to people in their offices. Each person greets me with direct eye contact, a generous smile and a solid handshake. Old school. How I like it.

He explains that in this business, a “distributor” helps get products from the factory that made them to the stores, or “dealers,” that sell them. When your local gun store needs more Leupold scopes, Kimber firearms, or CRKT knives, generally they don’t order from the factory, they order from a local distributor that keeps the items in stock.

Korth Group is one of a small group of independent distributors in Canada, and if you’re an individual consumer like me, you may never deal directly with the company or its peers, such as North Sylva Co., Big Rock Sports or Bowmac Gunpar. Big retail chains, like Cabela’s Inc., Bass Pro Shops and Canadian Tire Corp. often handle their own distribution.

‘Lifetime Means Lifetime’

We exit the offices into the warehouse, and the first stop is the Leupold room, with tall steel shelves of boxed riflescopes sorted and aligned by model. Korth Group, founded by Terry’s father, Jim, 40 years ago, began as a sales representative for Leupold, before becoming the exclusive Canadian distributor and a repair centre in the 1990s. The company offers a lifetime warranty, and sometimes new owners of 50-year-old scopes send them in for a check up.

“Lifetime means lifetime,” Korth says. “The warranty is on the product, not the person. We don’t need receipts.”

If you’re buying a scope, it helps to know the intended purpose to pick a model with the best combination of field of view, magnification and eye relief, known as the “optical triangle,” Korth says.

The Punisher

“If you get excessive on any one, something else has to give,” Korth says. Many people assume that higher magnification is better, but “mirage and parallax get magnified just like the image gets magnified.”

Next to the room for new optics is a double-doored cell with pressurized air where scopes are examined and repaired. More than 90 percent of the products that come in don’t have any defects, Korth says. He explains how Leupold’s plant in Oregon tests scopes on “The Punisher,” a machine that knocks them forward and backward at least 5,000 times under the recoil equivalent of a .375 Holland & Holland, a favourite calibre of big-game hunters in Africa.

“We don’t want them to fail,” Korth says. “We build scopes so they don’t have to be replaced.”

Focus on Relationship

I note that Korth refers to Leupold and the other brands he sells as “we,” never “they,” so it can be hard to tell if he’s talking about his business or theirs. He says that he is “selective” and carries only the leading brands in their market. I suspect that every businessman says the same thing, but there’s nothing fake or rehearsed about this 63-year-old who speaks through a smile at a steady, deliberate pace, dresses informally and drives a white Dodge pickup. He gives the impression of a man who doesn’t give excuses or B.S., and doesn’t take any either.

During my 3.5-hour visit, Korth doesn’t talk about prices or profits, but he does talk about wanting to make decisions that are best for his customers, suppliers and employees. He talks about the importance of relationships.

Shelves of Guns

After Leupold, Korth badges us through to the main warehouse, with three-storey high ceilings and concrete-slab walls. On one side, behind a massive metal door, is the ammo vault.

Korth is Canada’s biggest distributor of Hornady, and during our tour a salesman tells him they won a large contract to supply a major provincial law-enforcement agency. He also recently began carrying Eley, the cartridges shot by elite competitors, such as Calgary’s Lynda Kiejko, who represented Team Canada at last year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and is now a vice-chair of the Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee. (Read my pre-Rio interview with Kiejko here.)

Next up, the gun lockers. I’ve never been in the same space as thousands of firearms, neatly stacked in their boxes on rows of industrial shelving almost three storeys high. For me, this is the Chamber of Heavenly Delights, and I want to explore and handle everything in here, but Korth keeps us within a few steps of the entrance. I see a smaller inner locker that contains so-called “Prohibited” firearms destined mainly for police.

Difficult Glock Decision

The only guns I can identify from where we’re standing are a few hundred Glock pistols paired with Hornady safes that are loaded onto carts near the entrance, and Korth explains he’s considering a promotion with a discounted price if they’re bought together. In March, two months after my visit, he said that he made the difficult decision to stop carrying Glock after the pistol maker planned to drop prices beyond what would have been viable for him. ( broke that story.)

“We left on very amicable terms with Korth,” James Cassells, who manages Glock’s sales in Canada, told me at the time. “They were a very good distributor for us. We’re sorry to see them go.”

Eventually we make it to Korth’s underground shooting range, which looks like it was installed the day before. The 2 lanes at 100 yards and 4 lanes at 25 yards are pristine, the newest and cleanest range I’ve ever seen. (Granted, that’s easier for a small, private range than one that hosts hundreds of shooters a day.)

Korth’s staff use it for product testing and evaluations, and he also offers it to local police. I silently hope he’ll pull out some pew-pews for me to try, but no. I also wonder how often he hears, “Hey, Boss, I gotta go downstairs to test a few things. For a customer (cough, cough). See you in a few hours.”

‘A Strong Year’

We wind up the visit in Korth’s office, which like the rest of the place has simple, functional furniture and is organized and clean. On his desk is one of the products he sells, a container of Hygenall LeadOff wipes to remove lead from skin and other surfaces. He explains that each gunshot can release more lead particles than what a lead miner inhales in two weeks, since primers, powders and bullets can all contain the toxic metal.

I ask him about the outlook for the firearm industry and his own business, not knowing that 2017 marks the company’s 40th anniversary. He expects an increase in recreational gun sales after a flat 2016, and says sales to law-enforcement agencies will be a “strong complement.”

“The non-hunting shooter has really been on the rise: young ladies, young men,” Korth says. “More people are out shooting.” As evidence, he mentions several ranges opening up across Canada.

“We think it’s going to be a strong year.”