By Michael G. Sabbeth
The Fiocchi empire began improbably with a bit of a splutter, born of a predecessor’s failure and a bank foreclosure. In the early 1800s Fiocchi family ancestors lived around Bologna, a thriving commercial and industrial center. Two of the men followed Napoleon’s army in his Italian campaign and took up residence in Milan. One of them, Giulio Fiocchi, became a bank manager and was fatefully assigned to oversee a loan made to a manufacturer of black powder and muskets in Lecco, a small city northeast of Milan located at the southern tip of the eastern prong of Lake Como. Suffering hard times after the war, the arms manufacturer defaulted on the loan. In 1876 Giulio was instructed to visit the facility and extract whatever funds could be negotiated. On horseback Giulio rode to the gorgeous city, investigated and concluded the borrower was insolvent and that any repayment was unlikely.
Giulio knew nothing of guns and powder but possessing a keen business intuition, he sensed an opportunity. He consulted with his brother, Giacomo, an engineer educated at the newly founded University of Milan, on the viability of starting their own ammunition business. Since the time of the Roman Empire, that area of Lombardy had been famous for manufacturing metallic small parts. The first cased ammunition for breach loading firearms started to appear and Giacomo was willing to risk that metallic case ammunition production could be profitable.
Giulio persuaded his Milan bank to loan them the money to buy the defaulting company. They ceased musket production and in 1877 hunting and sporting ammunition production began under the name Giulio Fiocchi Enterprise.
Fiocchi implemented a forward vision of employee benefits and relationships. In 1904 Giulio Fiocchi built houses in Lecco for the workers and paid them sufficient wages to enable them to afford a decent living and to buy the houses if they desired. Fiocchi hired women and built a school and a nursery for the workers’ children, which still are in operation. These enterprises were all funded by the Fiocchi family, resulting in worker loyalty so strong that presently many third and fourth generation workers are at the firm. Fiocchi became a principal supplier of ammunition to the Italian army during WWI. Giulio, who fathered thirteen children, died in 1916 and bequeathed the company to son Carlo. Although Italy endured difficult times after WW I during its reconstruction, Fiocchi flourished.
Shortly after the commencement of WW II, the Fiocchi factory was seized by the Nazi Wermacht. As defeat became imminent, the Nazis attempted to destroy the plant to keep it out of Allied control. Fiocchi workers thwarted the Nazi effort but their accomplishment was somewhat pyrrhic in that British and American bombers almost totally destroyed the factories.
After the war the seven Fiocchi brothers faced a stark choice: go their separate ways or rebuild the factories. They decided to rebuild. Assisted by their workforce of about fifteen hundred, the facilities were reconstructed in about one year, without any investment from the Marshall Plan. After the war Carlo served as an economic advisor to the prime minister of Italy.
The facilities were modernized with new equipment boasting superior design and technology, many designed by Fiocchi engineers tailored specifically for manufacturing modern ammunition. As related to me by Carlo Fiocchi, the current vice president of Fiocchi of America, grandson of Carlo mentioned above, Fiocchi thus gained an edge over other ammunition manufacturers in the 1950’s and 60’s. “The factory was extremely modern by ammunition company standards.” The ammunition market changed at an accelerating pace after WW II, with globalization creating competition beyond regional and national spheres of influence. The company had to become marketing oriented in addition to constantly improving product quality.
Fiocchi Munizioni SpA
The ammunition company founded in 1876 now operates as Fiocchi Munizioni SpA. Still headquartered in Lecco, it is owned wholly by the umbrella entity, Giulio Fiocchi Holding. I was told about seventy Fiocchi family members have shares in the holding company. Fiocchi of America is one of the international divisions wholly owned by Fiocchi Munizioni. Current executives are cousins and fourth generation descendants of Giulio and Giacomo. I visited the factory this past November. Alessandra Selva, a brilliant assistant marketing manager, greeted me at the receptionist’s desk. An array of massive trophies lined the shelf behind the reception area. Signed posters of world champion competitors lined the walls. I received my security badge and was introduced to three executives. Pietro Fiocchi, president of Fiocchi of America, radiates energy and gives the impression you’d get shocked if you touched him. Cousin, Stefano, is president and CEO of Fiocchi Munizoni SpA. Pino Fiocchi, father of Carlo of FOA, had been president of Fiocchi Munizioni for over twenty years commencing in the 1960’s. I did not meet him but learned that, although eighty-five years old, he continues to work as an engineering consultant. Cousin Costantino, an elegant man with upright bearing, is technical director of Fiocchi Munizioni. He took me on a tour of the facilities and, in flawless English, began a conversation talking about fly fishing in Colorado.
As we exited the office building I paused to absorb the beauty of the setting. Lecco, with a population of about fifty thousand, is located amidst what are called the pre-Alps. It is only an hour’s drive, for example, from the glitzy Swiss resort, Saint Moritz, nestled in the Alps’ Engadine Valley. Once a center of iron production, its industries now are tourism, banking and commerce. Fiocchi Munizioni currently has about four hundred and fifty employees. Annually it produces tens of millions of rounds of military ammunition, 1.2 billion shotgun primers, about seventy million shotgun shells sold under its name , and several hundred million empty primed cases for other manufacturers.
I had never seen shotgun shells being manufactured. The process is fascinating, beginning with the plastic pellets of numerous color combinations for making the shotgun tubes, the hammer machines that pummel brass sheets into the base that hold the plastic tube and the primer and the machines that construct the primers.
Primer production is the most volatile and dangerous aspect of production. To preempt community resistance to its continued operation in the city and to demonstrate its civic sensitivity, Fiocchi is moving its primer production facility to a remote area in the mountains about ten miles from Lecco. Fiocchi primers, Costantino said, are known for their extreme consistency and ideal balance between heat ignition and gas production. “We have a very low standard of
deviation within the loads,” Costantino told me. Fiocchi alters the priming mixture parameters, as well as its powders, for different kinds of loads and specifically for an array of different environmental factors such as humidity, heat and cold. Fiocchi is now creating specific loads for the 2010 sporting world championship in Melbourne, Australia and for the 2010 FITASC competition in Arezzo, Tuscany.
A technician fired a few shotgun shells at an indoor range where ammunition is tested and analyzed. Wires from the test gun to computers looked like linguini. The first shell had a Fiocchi ‘gold’ primer. The shot charge went through the barrel in 2.400 milliseconds. The second cartridge used a slightly less hot silver primer. The shot from that shell was in the barrel 4/10,000 of a second longer. “The shooters can tell the difference,” Costantino said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Well, they say they can,” he added with conviction.
The competition target shotgun shells are made in Fiocchi Lab, a separate facility in Carisio, between Milan and Torino. Costantino enthused that the shooters are intimately involved in the production process. Top Italian competitors and Olympic Gold medal winners, such as 17 year-old Jessica Rossi and Francesco D’Aniello shoot in excess of fifty thousand rounds a year and, thus, are very sensitive to the loads. They will actually track the shells on the production line, work with the technicians and test the cartridges as they are completed, as if they were connoisseurs tasting wine or Scotch directly from the cask. “We try to translate the shooter’s desires into production,” Costantino told me.
This involvement can give an edge to a competitor. Francesco D’Aniello told Alessandra Selva at the recent World Cup in Munich, “Do you know my strength in competition? That I am 100% sure that the cartridges I put in my gun are for me, exactly what I want. I have the perfect tools. Now it is all up to my concentration.”
As we said good bye, Costantino expressed his family’s philosophy that the development and specialization needed to create products they think are a step above the competition justify spending additional time and resources. “Bringing a classic and timeless offering to the market in terms of the highest product quality and innovation at a competitive price is always worth the wait.”Fiocchi of America
In partnership with Smith & Wesson, the Fiocchi family had a factory in Alton, Illinois in the 1950’s. Diverging company interests caused Fiocchi to sell its share to S & W and withdraw from the American market. Great grandson Carlo Fiocchi joined the family business in 1980 at the age of 24 and worked as a product manager in charge of the English speaking market, his assignment no doubt influenced by the fact that his grandmother was British. His responsibilities included overseeing its meager exports to the United States.
Carlo traveled to the United States on his honeymoon but all was not champagne and moonlit strolls. He was instructed to bring back marketing research for a US facility. Carlo concluded that opportunities could not be exploited unless Fiocchi had a physical presence. In 1983, a FOA facility was built in Springfield, Missouri, to import ammunition, the location selected because of his father’s existing contacts there and that it offered the most favorable rail and trucking costs.
After a year and a half they realized that importing loaded ammunition was not an effective business model. The company couldn’t react fast enough to the needs of the US shooters. Carlo returned to Italy and convinced the president, Paolo, to build a manufacturing plant on a farm he identified in the Ozarks near Springfield. In a grand cosmic manner, history repeated itself, for the farmer was defaulting on property loans. Fiocchi negotiated a purchase with the farmer and loans with the bank. Providing a platform for quality manufacturing jobs, the Fiocchi enterprise was enthusiastically welcomed by the local government.
Carlo received substantial assistance from his mentor, Bob Oxsen. They started the company in 1984 but Fiocchi Munizioni requested that Carlo return to Italy to work in its sales and marketing department. He remained in Italy until 1996, then left to create his own consulting firm in the United States. During the next decade Carlo worked in an array of ammunition, optics and shotgun importing businesses. As the third generation Fiocchi family passed control to the fourth, Carlo’s cousins Stefano, and Pietro, who became President of Fiocchi of America, persuaded him to return to the Fiocchi fold. The minimal sales of FOA and its marginal market share evoked contemplation of dissolving the US division, reminiscent of the choice facing the Fiocchi family after WW II .
Never theless, in 2005, Pietro, Carlo and Donna Swafford, Chief Operations Manager, boldly attempted to revitalize company in April 2005. Due in large measure to their acumen, since then FOA sales have increased 500%. The US subsidiary imports empty primed hulls from Fiocchi Munizioni and wads from Italy, produced mainly by Baschieri & Pellagri and Gualandi in Bologna, a world capital of machine shop engineering, home to Ferraris and Lamborghinis and the ancestral home of the Fiocchi family.Gun powder is from U.S.A. sources.
Fiocchi of America’s competitive target shotgun ammunition is made by shooters for shooters, Carlo said. All the workers on the production line are extremely proficient. Advisor Bob Oxsen was on the all American team. Carlo Oderda, a current product manager at Fiocchi Munizioni and an Italian Olympic level shooter, draws upon his skills to interpret what competitors need and what the market wants. Oderda travels to FOA about five times a year to design the top competition loads. “He is a magician,” Carlo Fiocchi exclaimed over the phone and then analogized, “To put regular gas in a Ferrari is a capital sin. It’s the same with putting mediocre ammunition in a top gun.”
Not all shooters have the same needs so Fiocchi makes a vast array of competition shotgun cartridges. The Exacta line is Fiocchi of America’s premium line. Most popular for F.I.T.A.S.C., given the 1 ounce load restriction and no velocity limitation, are the Crusher at 1300 fps, the Super Crusher at 1400 fps and the Little Rhino at 1250 fps. Most popular for sporting clays is the White Rhino 1 1/8 ounce load at 1250 fps. All Exacta line shells are loaded with 5% antimony lead, as opposed to the 3.2% antimony content used in Fiocchi’s more economical Shooting Dynamics line of competition shells. These loads are available with nickel plated shot produced exclusively for Fiocchi by Locatelli in Italy. Jackie Stenton, assistant to Carlo at Fiocchi of America, asserts that the ‘knockdown’ effectiveness of nickel shot greatly exceeds that of copper plated shot. No other US manufacturer uses nickel plated shot, she informed me.
To get a sense of their shotgun shell performance, I interviewed Fiocchi sponsored shooter, Anthony Matarese. At age 25, he has more championship titles than Imelda Marcos had shoes, including 3rd place at the 2009 Sporting Clays Open, being an All American thirteen times and being the current captain of the Open Team USA.
Anthony has been shooting sporting clays since he was ten, starting at his family’s sporting club in New Jersey. Fiocchi has sponsored him over the past ten years. His favorite load is the White Rhino, which he describes as the hardest hitting shell with the least recoil, qualities likely attributable to the shell’s wad cup design and him shooting a Beretta Urika II semi-auto. He uses a light modified choke 95% of the time. Shooting FITASC, Anthony favors the 1300 fps Crusher because it kicks less than any other shell near that velocity. Anthony noted that Fiocchi respects personal relationships. “Carlo calls and asks how I’m doing. He seeks my thoughts on how to make better loads.”A View of the World
The most challenging aspect of his work, Carlo told me, was giving his company an identity. He has great respect for his US competitors but added, “I want something of a different flavor, a different perfume.” His strategy is to offer the highest quality ammunition by working with the top designers and competitors. “Mr. Federal doesn’t exist and Mr. Remington doesn’t exist any more. My family name is on the frigging box! I cannot sell anything but the best. It’s my Italian sense of pride.” Carlo explained his perspective of Fiocchi’s place in history. “We have a family business, not a publicly traded company. We don’t have to meet stringent quarterly targets as far as we respect a shared vision. We have an easier task discussing long range strategies with family shareholders.” Carlo is a close friend of Franco Beretta, a good friend to have. “Our vision is to be the Beretta of ammunition,” Carlo said. “We want to have something for our children and grandchildren. We look down the horizon and want to leave something for future generations.”Carlo will likely achieve his goals.
Fiocchi of America attracts skilled dedicated employees. Jackie Stenton commented that Fiocchi has extraordinary talent working for it. “The passion evolves into our own personal pride.” “You have no idea how proud I am working for Fiocchi,” Dee Zambetti told me. “Anytime you work in a company owned by a family, it’s different from a company owned by stockholders. Working at Fiocchi is like coming home.”
Fiocchi Munizioni and Fiocchi of America proudly support the industry by sponsoring a wide variety of programs at the national and local levels such as programs for disabled shooters. They realize that the combined efforts of many dedicated enthusiasts are needed to ensure the future of the shooting sports. Pietro Fiocchi’s words in the introduction to the 2009 catalog poetically capture the company’s guiding prophetic philosophy: “Together, in our own corners of the world, we can protect our natural resources while enjoying our own traditions, whether handed down, rekindled or begun for generations to come.” No ammunition manufacturer could offer more.
Published: 16 July 2013