An Overland Park company best known for its Bushnell binoculars agreed to a nearly $1 billion deal Thursday with a buyer that was attracted more to its holsters, rifle scopes and other shooting-sports products.
Virginia-based Alliant Techsystems Inc., widely known as ATK, is buying Bushnell Group Holdings Inc. for $985 million. ATK also operates the federal government’s Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, where 2,400 work.
Bushnell employs 1,100 globally, including about 300 in the Kansas City area.
Its product lines include Uncle Mike’s holsters, Tasco rifle scopes, Hoppe’s gun care supplies and Butler Creek slings and loading equipment.
ATK had acquired a rifle and shotgun maker earlier this year and sells ammunition and gun accessories. It described the Bushnell deal as a way to capitalize on a surge in firearm sales in recent years.
Two-thirds of Bushnell’s revenues come from shooting sports, ATK chief executive Mark DeYoung told analysts during a conference call.
In the call with analysts, DeYoung did not discuss the sale’s possible effect on jobs. Both companies declined requests for comment.
Bushnell was founded in 1948 by Dave Bushnell, who began by importing binoculars through his California company.
But the company’s Overland Park roots extend back to Jason Empire Inc., which began as an importer of cigarette lighters and pearls. Its founders were Richard Levin and his father, Jake. Its name derived from Jake and son.
By 1953, Jason had begun importing binoculars too, and the businesses were rivals until 1992, when they came under the same roof.
Bausch & Lomb, which had acquired Bushnell in 1972, bought Jason Empire and merged the companies under the Bushnell name and kept Jason Empire’s Overland Park headquarters.
Bushnell told his story about starting the company during its 50th anniversary celebration in Overland Park. He had bought a pair of binoculars for $50 before departing on a global journey during which he sold the glasses for $100. The importing idea came to Bushnell when he found a pair of binoculars in Japan for $18.
“My vision was to have everyone in the Rose Bowl have a pair of binoculars,” said Bushnell, 83 at the time. “I fantasized that 50,000 people would be (focused) on the line of scrimmage all at the same time.”
Exports got the company in trouble in 2003 when it paid $873,000 in civil and criminal fines for transactions that took place from 1995 to 1997. Bushnell had exported more than 500 Night Ranger thermal imaging binoculars and monoculars to Japan and 14 other countries without the licenses required by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The transgressions happened while Bushnell was owned by Worldwide Sports & Recreation, based in Tulsa, Okla. Worldwide Sports had bought Bushnell in 1995 and was itself bought in 1999 by Wind Point Partners of Chicago.
Bushnell has been owned since 2007 by a private equity investment firm called MidOcean Partners.
Though MidOcean did not disclose the purchase price, Bushnell’s then-president, Joe Messner, had said it was just under $600 million.
Bushnell is expected this year to sell $600 million worth of sporting optics and other goods.
Shooting sports have gotten a boost from a surge in firearm sales in recent years. DeYoung said target shooting, for example, has attracted a younger audience that is more female and urban than in the past.
“Absolutely. We’ve felt it,” said Tom Shepherd, president of Hodgdon Powder, a Shawnee company that sells gunpowder for home ammunition loaders.
“This has become way more acceptable. People are more interested in shooting. They’ve found it can be competitive. They’ve found it can be fun, and they’ve found it can be safe.”
Firearm background checks have more than doubled since the end of 2005, with 19.6 million checks being performed last year, according to FBI data.
DeYoung said the surge in firearm sales had created “millions of platforms” for the companies’ sights, shooting scopes, slings, cases and other accessories.
The Bushnell deal follows ATK’s acquisition in March of the Savage rifle and shotgun brand when it bought the Caliber Co. It also owns several ammunition brands and shooting accessories brands, including Champion Pro targets, Gunslick Pro gun care products and Weaver optics.
Bushnell’s products sell mostly in the United States, but about a fourth of its revenues come in Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. It has expanded its own collection of brands through acquisitions.
ATK is a $4.36 billion conglomeration of aerospace, defense and sporting businesses that together employ 14,000 in 21 states, Puerto Rico and abroad. After the Bushnell deal is completed, following regulatory approvals, sporting revenues will account for 45 percent of ATK’s business, the company said.