Charles F. Orvis
Leigh Perkins, Jr., & Dave Perkins
Orvis is a family-owned retail and mail-order business specializing in high-end fly fishing, hunting and sporting goods. Founded in Manchester, Vermont in 1856 by Charles F. Orvis to sell fishing tackle, the company has changed hands only twice and has had only five CEOs in its 150-year history. Characterized by the leading fly-fishing trade journal as an "800-pound gorilla" in the fly-fishing industry, Orvis is recognized for its "unparalleled influence on the sport" and outstanding customer service. Orvis is the oldest mail-order retailer in the United States.
Charles F. Orvis opened a tackle shop in Manchester, Vermont, in 1856. His 1874 fly reel was described by reel historian Jim Brown as the "benchmark of American reel design," the first fully modern fly reel. His elegantly printed tackle catalogs distributed to a small but devoted customer list in the late 19th century, were the early forerunners of today's enormous direct-mail outdoor products industry.
Charles's daughter, Mary Orvis Marbury, took charge of the Orvis fly department in the 1870s. By 1892, when she published a milestone encyclopedic reference book on fly patterns--Favorite Flies and Their Histories, Orvis had emerged as the country's foremost arbiter of fly-pattern authenticity and style.
Following Charles's death in 1915, sons Albert and Robert managed the company until the 1930s, when it essentially collapsed during the Depression. Investors, led by Philadelphia businessman-sportsman Dudley Corkran, purchased Orvis in 1939 for $4,500, and quickly revitalized the business. Corkran hired master bamboo rodbuilder Wes Jordan, who by the late 1940s had developed a Bakelite impregnation process that made Orvis bamboo rods uniquely impervious to weather, rot, and other perennial perils.
In 1965, Corkran sold the firm to Leigh H. Perkins for $400,000. Perkins recognized the opportunity to make Orvis synonymous not only with fly fishing but with an entire way of life, and greatly enlarged the product line into gifts and clothing. Described by contemporaries as a genius at mail order, Perkins pioneered the trading of customer mailing lists among his chief competitors, including L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer and Norm Thompson.
Under Perkins and Jordan's successor as chief rod builder, Howard Steere, Orvis became the world's largest and most versatile manufacturer of high-quality fly rods and reels. In 1989, Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, named the Orvis fly rod one of the five best products made in the United States in the 1980s.
Through its fishing and shooting schools and growing network of retailers, Orvis became a leading force in marketing the traditions and activities associated with the broader country lifestyle of which fly fishing was just one part.
Charles Orvis and Mary Orvis Marbury have been inducted into the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Among their successors at Orvis, Dudley Corkran, Wes Jordan, Leigh Perkins, and Howard Steere could all be regarded as legitimate candidates for eventual induction.
But it has been since Perkins' retirement in 1992, under the leadership of Perkins' sons, CEO Leigh ("Perk") Perkins, Jr., and Executive Vice President Dave Perkins, that Orvis has most fully formalized and broadened its corporate vision. While Orvis has thrived and revenue has more than tripled under this second Perkins's generation of leadership, a long-simmering corporate identity crisis was confronted and resolved. The company's remarkable growth in fact had strained Orvis's sense of direction. For just one example, between 1982 and 2000, Orvis purchased six other firms, most of whose own identities did not mesh well with Orvis and thus put the clarity of the Orvis brand at risk.
In a major corporate branding overhaul in 2000-2001, Orvis adopted a new brand centered on sporting traditions and distinctive country lifestyle.
Today, Orvis has published a multitude of instructional books and Podcasts, most often published or written by fly fishing mentor Tom Rosenbauer who has been with the company for 30 years.