At the start of SHOT Show 2023, the news broke that Australian defense company NIOA had purchased Barrett Firearms. Rob Nioa, the new owner of Barrett Firearms was in attendance at this year’s SHOT Show. I was given the rare opportunity to interview Mr. Nioa about his history in the firearms industry, and about the future of Barrett Firearms under his leadership. Without further ado, the interview with the new Barrett owner, Rob Nioa.
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[SHOT 2023] Exclusive Interview with New Barrett Owner Rob Nioa
TFB (Austin R.): Let’s first dive into the history of NIOA because obviously, you guys are already an established defense company. What’s been your role in that industry?
Rob Nioa: So we actually started in the sporting firearms markets in a small country town in regional Australia as a retail gun shop in the back of a gas station. And so the company has grown from there. My dad started the company and we’ve now been going for 50 years in the business. So this is our actual 50th year we’re celebrating.
TFB (Austin R.): Congratulations.
Rob Nioa: So 1973 was the first gas station we set up where we first started selling guns. And dad started just selling his own second-hand guns and his friends guns and got a license and some accounts to start selling guns and ammunition. So we started from there and then in about 1985 got out of retail and went to full-time wholesale.
So the business started to grow towards wholesale in the early eighties. And we were distributing around Australia, all over Australia. And in the mid-90s we had a whole lot of new gun laws come into Australia and we had to diversify the business because the sporting market itself was under attack and it was challenging and so we figured we had to get big or get out.
And we figured we weren’t getting out. We were always going to be in the gun industry. And so I led the diversification to law enforcement and the military. In fact, it was only law enforcement we were targeting to start with.
And we sort of fell into the military. We didn’t really think we could get into the military, but, you know, the first product we got had a military application as well. So we ended up by default in that market.
And then as we progressed on that journey, we saw more and more opportunities in the defense area. I spent probably 20 years working on gaining defense contracts and defense business. And we’re now the largest privately owned supplier of weapons and munitions to the Australian Department of Defense.
TFB (Austin R.): What factors kind of drove you guys to look at Barrett as a potential acquisition? How did that relationship start?
Rob Nioa: So there are a couple of different things which drove us toward Barrett.
The first thing, though, was we had a strategy to expand beyond Australia geographically and into the Five Eyes nations. So that’s Australia, New Zealand, the US., Canada, and the UK. So that was our general growth strategy.
And the reason for the growth strategy was that we were growing quite large in Australia. It’s a small market, with one customer. There is the Australian Department of Defense, and we’ve got a large part of our business relying on that one customer.
So in order to keep growing you can either sell different things to the same customer, or you can sell the same things to different customers. And we saw we were always going to stick to weapons and ammunition.
So guns and ammunition, we weren’t going to go off to electro-optics or, you know, unmanned autonomous vehicles and other adjacent things. We wanted to stay true to guns and ammo. And so that drove us down a path of looking at geographic expansion.
And so we did an acquisition in New Zealand last year and set up there. But if you’re going to be in the guns and Ammo business, geographically diverse within that five-eyes world, then America is the big one.
And we were looking actively at how we got into the US market. And we’ve had a long relationship with Barrett, so we know the company well. And so we just started a series of conversations with different people and it just turned out that Barrett was considering, or rather, Ronnie Barrett was considering a sale.
And through our relationship, we got to find that out. And we started a conversation with the company about whether we would be a natural fit, and that happened during the course of last year, particularly the second half of last year, and became a very natural fit and worked for everyone. So I managed to pull it all together at the beginning of this year.
TFB (Austin R.): Is there a new sort of vision or idea you have for the company going forward?
Rob Nioa: So then I guess there are a couple of elements of that. Firstly, we’ve invested a lot of money in Barrett, the company. So we don’t want to do anything that adversely affects that investment.
And what makes Barrett such a good company is its high-quality products, its detailed design, and its manufacturing house, most things are made in-house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and it’s at the forefront of the capabilities that it chooses.
We want that technical superiority, that authentic product at high quality, and that commitment to high quality has got to continue with whatever we do. So we definitely want to make sure that we lock down business as usual, but then we also want to grow the business over time, and we’ll spend a little bit of time working with the team there in Murfreesboro to make sure that how we think we want to grow or what we want to grow to make sense.
And then we’ll work out a plan to do that. But it’s ultimately going to be more machines, more people, more production, and that’s something we’re going to have to work out and map out. That’s not going to happen in the next twelve months because those sorts of things are a little bit longer term.
But immediately we will want to pick up some of the things that Barrett has lost the capacity to do because of their current contracts and workload. Things like the Fieldcraft, the REC7, and REC10.
We want to get production back up and going on those because there are customers that want them and we need to at least fill current requirements and then we can look at how we expand, and what’s logical.
I’m already aware that there are really good projects and programs we’re working on internally. Lots of R&D going on. Barrett will always remain at the forefront of that long-range precision leadership. There’s no question about that.
But we will explore, whether we can expand beyond a very narrow line of products? And I don’t know the answer to that as we sit here today, but my gut feeling is that with the skilled engineers and the people and the team and a commitment to expansion, I would imagine there will be other opportunities we’ll uncover over the next year or two. So we’re open to ideas.
TFB (Austin R.): This question is more for our readership. Are you a fellow shooter or a Barrett shooter in this case? And do you have a favorite Barrett product?
Rob Nioa: I do. So I’m a hunter and shooter. That’s what I do when I’m on holiday. I hunt and shoot. I’ve done a bit of hunting over here in America, but we do lots of shooting in Australia, so a lot of its feral pest destruction in Australia rather than hunting.
We do some Deer hunting and things like that. I’ve shot since I was a kid. My first rifle was a Winchester single shot of 22 when I was about six. Dad taught me how to shoot and how to aim and all those things.
I’ve always loved it. My kids all shoot and that’s formed the basis of many of our family holidays, so I’m absolutely committed to all of that. That’s how we have fun. As far as my favorite Barrett rifle, I have certainly shot 50 cal and we’ve done a fair bit with the M107A1 because we’re supplying both the New Zealand military and the Australian military with that rifle. We’ve done a lot of test firings and things. I’ve got an MRAD myself chambered in .338 Lapua and play with that on the farm.
But my absolute current favorite Barrett firearm is my .243 Barrett Fieldcraft, really, and that’s what I’m using hunting in the Australian outback at the moment. It is the best hunting rifle I’ve ever used and I love it.
It’s lightweight, I’ve got a really cool Leupold optic on it and there’s nothing I can’t shoot with that. And it is absolutely magnificent. So I’m really keen to see that fieldcraft production picked up again because I absolutely love the product.
Use it. Love it. Yeah.
TFB (Austin R.): And then someone told me that you have some advocacy that you like to contribute within the firearms industry.
Rob Nioa: I’m of the view that if you’re in the industry and you want to be a leader in the industry then you’ve got to engage government and you’ve got to have a view and you’ve got further industry issues for the industry and you’ve got to work with legislators and you’ve got to try and get the right outcomes for the industry.
There are end-user advocate groups that really focus on the individual shooter and their rights, and then there are industry advocates focusing on industry-specific issues. I see the two as being pretty closely aligned because if we don’t have shooters, then we don’t have an industry.
But also if the industry doesn’t solve all sorts of technical challenges, everything from ammunition compliance and transport regulations and legislation we can’t get all of that working, and we can’t get product shooters.
So we have to work like a left and right hand of each other. But in Australia, for more than 20 years, I’ve certainly worked at various state and federal government levels advocating for sensible gun laws for the industry.
And at the moment, I’m a director of an organization called the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia. I was a foundation member of that, and that is a group of major wholesalers that have pulled together.
We contribute a percentage of our sales into a fund so that we’re there to do a range of advocacy activities. That includes getting better research and better data around gun laws and legislation, but also highlight where the industry is being attacked and fight back against a lot of the things which you’re seeing in the US. Like banking organizations that are refusing to deal with licensed businesses. So we call that bad behavior out, that poor corporate behavior we’ll call that out. We will try and address that, and we will focus on those sorts of things, and we will advocate for the right outcomes as best we can.
And that’s a really important body of work that’s going on at the moment. And then I sit on various advisory boards of governments and try and get the right outcomes as best we can. And I sit on the Queensland Firearm Dealers Association, which is our State association, and I am currently the vice president of that, but I’m also the president of the National Firearms Dealers Association in Australia. So I’m wearing a couple of different hats at that national level.
TFB (Austin R.): Concerning the press release and the comments we’ve seen, I think everyone wants to know if the remaining structure is going to remain in place with Ronnie and Chris still involved within the company.
Rob Nioa: Ronnie and Chris have been retained on a multi-year advisory deal and they will remain available to us for continued advice, whether it’s technical or business-related advice.
They’re both staying in Murfreesboro Tenessee and close by, and I’m going to lean heavily on them over the coming years. From the daily operational point of view. We’ve made two executive promotions within the company.
Ronnie was previously the CEO. He is no longer the CEO. He’s moved into that executive advisor role. We’ve promoted the past president. Sam Shallenberger has been moved from president to the CEO role. And then Bryan James was the chief operating officer and has been promoted into the president role.
All were existing staff executives, and it was a path that they already had planned. And I’ve known both Sam and Bryan for a lot of years, and we feel really comfortable with them in the leadership, as does the company.
You know, they’re well known, well respected within the company, so they’ve taken on that leadership position.
TFB (Austin R.): Will civilian sales still remain a priority in the United States?
Rob Nioa: Absolutely. Civilian sales are where we started our business and we’re also still the largest seller to the sporting market in Australia as well. So we haven’t, we’ve never ever walked away from civilian sales.
It’s where our personal passion is, my personal passion. It’s where we started the business. It’s the core of our business and it’s sales day in, day out. And we’re going to want to introduce more consumer products as we go.
The first one you’ll see is the reintroduction of Fieldcraft to start. But we will want more consumer products as we go. We sell guns and ammo. And we’ll sell as many guns and as much ammo as we can to the civilian, law enforcement, and military market. We want to make sure we push all three. We’re not going to let anyone drop off.
TFB (Austin R.): Barrett in the US has always been known for, if we can’t sell it to consumers, then we won’t sell it to law enforcement agencies, so they won’t conduct sales within California where they can’t sell those firearms to consumers. Ethos like that, do you see those things changing or are they going to stick around?
Rob Nioa: We’ll respect the decisions that have been made in the past, and we’re not intending to change any of the philosophies on the way the company operates and we will remain true to the brand and its values, and its heritage.
We’re not looking to change any of that. We get that as an industry, there will be fights we’re going to have, and we’ll be part of those industry fights and struggles if that’s what’s needed along the way. We’re used to it. We understand the industry, and we’re not afraid to stand up for our rights.
TFB (Austin R.): Any other personal message that you have about this acquisition to clarify anything you’ve seen in the press?
Rob Nioa: Yes. Well, look, I think something that’s important is Ronnie Barrett could have gotten more money by selling to private equity or a big multinational company or a big firearms manufacturer that was already based in America.
He chose not to do that and he chose to go with us as a family business. And he is proud of the legacy he’s created and wants to ensure that it continues on. And if this transaction had gone a different way, if it had gone to a big company and got swallowed up and manufacturing consolidated, I think it would have been very very bad for the brand.
That would have been the worst possible outcome and Ronnie knew that. And so the trust that he and I have is that this is our only facility in America. This is our start and the beginning of the journey in America, and we’re going to grow and expand it.
And that’s what he wanted and that’s what he liked. And the other thing that’s important is the mission we’re on. We’re 50 years into the gun business, a business as a family-owned company. And my vision is to create a 100-year family-owned legacy.
This is not the sort of transaction where it’s corporations or private equity or consolidate and run it for a little while and build it up and sell it off. We have no interest in that at all. This is a very long-term commitment and consideration from our point of view.
So we’re really committed to the brand, to Murfreesboro, to the staff, to the people, and we want to explore expansion opportunities. I think all of that is very, very good for the brand.
TFB (Austin R.): This is always a fun question that we like to ask. We’ll say the world has ended. You can make up any scenario you want, but the world has ended and you have to take one firearm with you. What do you decide to take? You got to be able to do everything, and I’ve never heard an Australian answer to this.
Rob Nioa: Well, at the moment, I’m taking my Fieldcraft .243. It’s lightweight to carry. Anything I want to hunt, I can kill with it and it pretty well does anything I want it to do. I love it, absolutely love it.
TFB (Austin R.): Perfect. We look forward to seeing that coming back. Yes. And thank you again so much for your time.
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