By Katy Spence
Larry Murphy wasn’t looking to work for a gun manufacturer. As a techie with experience at Semitool and Applied Materials, he was more interested in how technology can disrupt an industry.
So when an investor approached him in 2014 and offered him a job with PROOF Research, an ambitious, science-driven, custom-made carbon fiber barrel and rifle manufacturer in Kalispell, Montana, he took a few minutes to consider the offer. Ultimately, he accepted and is now CEO of the company, which has nearly 100 employees in Kalispell, Virginia Beach, and Dayton, Ohio.
PROOF was formed in 2012 when Jense Precision and Advanced Barrel Systems joined forces to apply advanced science, new technologies, and state-of-the-art materials and manufacturing to produce disruptive firearms and other products.
Since he’s joined the company, Murphy said PROOF has seen a 1,000 percent increase in growth, and there’s no sign of stopping.
PROOF’s success lies in its innovative, technology-based products, including its signature carbon fiber-wrapped barrels. From the manufacturing process to the end product, PROOF’s carbon fiber barrels weigh up to 50 percent lighter than traditional steel barrels, making them ideal for backcountry hunters and military users alike. The barrels stay cool longer, reducing aim-impeding heat mirages and decreasing cooldown time. Combined with durability, PROOF boasts that its barrels are stronger and lighter than traditional barrels without sacrificing any of the accuracy.
Murphy added that carbon fiber barrels are uniquely scalable. The same materials and process used to manufacture rifle barrels can also be used to make larger products, such as tank and helicopter gun barrels. While most of PROOF’s customer base is civilian, they have partnerships with all branches of the US military and are expanding into international markets.
Meeting Customer Demand through Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement
Building a custom rifle barrel starts on the factory floor, though PROOF’s is about as far from a stereotypical machine shop as one can get. When Murphy started at PROOF, he initiated lean manufacturing protocols, which encourage workers to strive for clean work spaces and efficient production methods. With labels and clearly demarcated spots for every tool or material, PROOF’s manufacturing floor is tidy enough for public tours.
Walking around the factory, it’s clear what each station is responsible for by the sign above it: Cut, Face, Drill, Ream. Murphy said workers at each cell are encouraged to think of their coworker in the next cell as their customer, to whom they should strive to give the highest quality product.
The Research & Development team in the back of the factory reports to the Dayton branch, and a creative team custom-paints each rifle. Murphy’s rifle is emblazoned with an American flag theme.
Before any custom rifle is sent to its new owner, the PROOF Research team thoroughly inspects and tests each weapon in their on-site 100-meter indoor test range. True to the company’s high-tech approach, the gun range is equipped with a 4-microphone acoustic array and photoelectric screens to provide a precise measurement of pressures, action time, muzzle velocity, ballistic coefficient, and accuracy for statistical analysis. PROOF sends this report to the customer along with their new gun.
Murphy said the streamlined, lean process not only ensures world-class products, but also makes for an efficient workforce. Every worker at a station can pick up exactly where they need to when they start their shift– there’s no need to rearrange a workspace or question where the previous shift left a tool. These guidelines have helped PROOF keep up with increasing product demand.
“If you want to be world-class, you don’t have a chance without lean,” Murphy said.
A believer in walking the walk, Murphy’s own office undergoes the same periodic inspections that the factory floor does. Because of this, his office is pretty sparse. There’s a computer on the desk with labeled cords, a bottle of wine labeled “Celebration Juice” and embargoed until a goal has been reached, and a box containing a “Stress Relief Item” — Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots.
“I’m not going to ask them to do something I wouldn’t do,” Murphy said. “If you don’t set the example and live by it, then why should they?”
Murphy is dedicated to making PROOF a world-class company, from its products and production to employee quality of life and company culture. He runs the company with a goal of continuous improvement, meaning if he’s ahead of the competition, they’ll never catch up.
“We want to be world-class in everything we do,” Murphy said. “No matter how good you are today, you want to be better tomorrow.”
Every employee is encouraged to participate in improving the company by submitting ideas for improvements in the workplace. Rather than the stereotypical anonymous “Suggestions” box, however, PROOF employees must describe a problem they see in the workplace, provide a solution, and put their name on it. These suggestions are publicly posted on a wall in the break room and are reviewed at the end of each week.
For each submission, employees receive a PROOFbuck. If the idea is implemented, the employee receives five PROOFbucks. PROOFbucks can be redeemed for company swag, such as clothing, hats, or even guns.
Twice a year, PROOF draws a name out of a hat to award an employee a free gun. PROOFbucks can be used to purchase more chances in the raffle.
Murphy said more than 1,000 employee ideas have been implemented.
“Some of them are huge ideas and make hundreds of thousands of dollars’ difference,” Murphy said. “Some are small, but they’re smart and good things to do.”
To further incentivize commitment, employees will receive a free gun for their seven-year work anniversary.
Recruiting, Training and Retaining an Excellent Montana Workforce
Murphy said PROOF has had tremendous success in recruiting engineers from Montana schools, like the Montana State University College of Engineering.
“Montana state and Montana engineers are some of the best in the world,” Murphy said. “The neat thing about Montana engineers is they’re very practical. They’re smart, and they know the same textbook, but they fixed their dad’s tractor as a kid growing up.”
Currently, PROOF has two MSU engineers, out of a staff of about 100 employees. Employees are often brought in on a temporary basis and hired full-time after six months of successful work. While PROOF looks for a lot of skilled labor, Murphy said they often develop skill in-house, giving employees the abilities they need to succeed at PROOF or future employers.
A lot of employees work 10-hour shifts Monday through Thursday so they can have a three-day weekend. Some opt to pull overtime on Friday to grab a little extra income but still have a weekend. Murphy said this flexibility and opportunity to earn more money is important for ensuring a higher quality of life for his workers.
Giving employees a chance to give back and be involved in the community is another way PROOF seeks to be world-class. Each year, the company sets a goal for donations in the form of volunteer hours and donating product. PROOF works nationally with the Wounded Warrior project and has donated a gun to the Samaritan House auction for the past several years. Some employees volunteer at the Food Bank dinner each year.
It’s important to the company and its investors to bring high-paying, skilled work to Montana.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Murphy said. “Grow the business, grow the talent, grow the people. So far, so good.”
About the Author: Katy Spence is Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and has an Environmental Journalism Master’s Program at the University of Montana.
About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of more than 320 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.