Global CEO Per Wååg finds direction manufacturing compasses in Wyoming’s Wind River Country.
The Brunton brand name has been synonymous with precision compasses for more than 125 years.
In the 1970s, an ownership group acquired the company’s intellectual property and established manufacturing in Riverton, Wyoming. Sweden-based Fenix Outdoor, an umbrella company with both brands and retailers, bought Brunton in 2009 and planted a flag at a new headquarters alongside Primus USA in Colorado, with manufacturing remaining in Riverton.
“What Brunton had was a good solid structure,” says the Stockholm-based Wååg. “They had routines in place. They’d been a well-functioning operation for some time. Fenix saw value in that and saw value in the brand, and bought it to nurture the brand and also continue building the Fenix platform for North American expansion.”
Now headquartered in Louisville, Colorado, Primus USA and Brunton “share a lot of resources,” says Wååg. “We have a lot of synergies being in the same industry.”
The difference: Primus manufactures its camping stoves overseas (in Estonia), whereas Brunton makes the vast majority of its products in the U.S. Wååg says that could change. “We have primarily been looking into how to make better use of the manufacturing capacity we have in Riverton.”
Where Brunton Manufactures
With about 25 employees during COVID-19, the 18,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Riverton “was built for Brunton,” says Wååg. “It’s a very favorable lease in cooperation with a nonprofit called IDEA Inc., the City of Riverton, and the Central Wyoming College. The more people we hire, the lower the lease gets.”
There’s an even bigger incentive to not outsource, he adds. “Fenix and the brand’s philosophy is that we should own our IP and not let that out. We always try to manufacture in-house and have as much know-how about it as possible. We think that is an asset.”
The deep experience of the employees is another critical asset. “We have a steady workforce of at least 15 employees that have been there for quite some time,” says Wååg, noting that temporary workers come in to help with production spikes. “We’re trying to get young blood . . . but it’s hard.”
Brunton makes the vast majority of its products in Riverton. “We make everything compass-related, except we have one product outsourced to a partner in China,” says Wååg. “It’s more related to the manufacturing method than the price actually, because we do other compasses in-house we can manufacture efficiently at the same price point.”
There are two market segments: professional and recreational. Pro compasses retail for about $300 to $1,800, whereas the rec compasses typically run $12 to $70.
Making compasses is a precise craft that requires years to hone. “I’ve tried it myself,” laughs Wååg. “For me, it takes three times as long and I would definitely break something.”
In Riverton, Brunton’s employees work at eight workstations at the shop that are perfectly aligned with magnetic north. Instead of an assembly line, a single worker takes every compass from start to finish.
“Each person makes all of the steps of the manufacture, and quality-proofs their own work, so we don’t have a line putting them together,” says Wååg. “Those women — it’s primarily women — behind those workstations are super proud of what they’re doing and owning that whole process.”
The employees’ experience comes into play calibrating compasses for specific declination and inclination in a big way. “It’s a precision instrument with a needle that needs to be aligned with magnetic north. That’s why the workstations are aligned that way,” says Wååg.
“That is a tricky piece. That is a craft that is hand-done. If you do it wrong, you’re not only going to tilt the needle, you’re going to bend the needle and then it’s not pointing to north anymore.”
“Depending on where the compass is going to be used, we need to balance the compasses accordingly,” says Wååg. “We can balance it for 18 different zones. If you want to be really precise, you can say, ‘I want to buy 15 of these compasses and they’re going to be used in North Africa.'”
Proprietary filling equipment is a key ingredient in Brunton’s secret sauce. “It’s a filling machine designed specifically to fill compasses,” says Wååg. “It’s a partly automated process but a lot of hand work that goes into it.”
The gist: The machine fills the compass vial with a proprietary blend of mineral spirits with the help of differential pressure. The employee then seals the compass in a climate-controlled room, before cycling them from subzero temperatures to room temperature and back again for quality control. “That makes for a compass that will withstand cold temperatures, high elevation, heat, pressure, whatever you can think of,” explains Wååg.
The supply chain includes neighbors in Riverton and suppliers of milled aluminum in Taiwan. “They’re anodizing,” says Wååg. “The anodizing process is very hard to come across in an efficient way in North America.”
Cases in point: Brunton paints and magnetizes needles, he notes, but works with a local partner for injection molding of the plastic bodies. “We try to build relationships and we let that external partner do it until we feel there’s benefits for us to take it in-house. That’s the overarching philosophy for both Primus and Brunton.”
The Riverton output is upwards of 50,000 compasses a year. “We’ve delivered steady revenue every year,” says Wååg.
“Right now, we see an uptick in demand,” says Wååg. “Production is trending up in general.”
Citing “constant development on the compass side,” he continues,”We’re looking forward to bidding on a project going forward that could potentially double our size, and we have the capacity for it.”
Sustainability is another point of emphasis. “One thing we are looking into at Brunton is how to produce more efficiently,” says Wååg. “We started a project called ECOmpass, which is a holistic way of looking at everything we do with a focus on being efficient and being more sustainable.”
“We have something called a management compass, where N stands for nature, E stands for economy, S stands for society, and W stands for well-being. We use that as a guide . . . of where we’d like to be in those cardinal directions.”
As a result, plastic waste has been reused via a recovery process at its partner injection molder. “Now we’re actually making transparent, decorative baseplates for compasses out of waste,” says Wååg. “It aligns with us as a brand.”