Friday, May 31, 2013

Orvis hunting product developer Brett Ference - An Interview

Gear is a big, big part of a wingshooter's world. It can make a good day in the field miserable and a miserable day tolerable, it can provide that extra bit of convenience for guys trying to make the most of a rare day off, and it can occasionally be the difference between bagging a limit and watching that last bird fly off into the distance. Most of us put a fair amount of effort into choosing the stuff.

As a long-time listener of the Double Barrel podcast I knew of Brett Ference and his role, or at least his title, at Orvis. I was less familiar with the inner workings so, curiosity being the better part of waiting for five o'clock, I gave him a call. Friday afternoons are generally a good time for these unannounced, less than important, otherwise intrusive interruptions, my theory being that if anyone is in his office on a Friday afternoon he'd welcome something a little offbeat. Brett called back within an hour.

I'm always interested in the person behind the job.  Tell us a little about the part of Brett Ference that's not the hunting product developer for Orvis.

I grew up in New England, my father had a dairy farm and like most farmers he had little time to hunt and fish. That said, he saw how much I loved hunting and fishing and he encouraged this by making it an alternative to work that needed to be done around the farm. Once I was finished with my mandatory chores I was pretty much free to hunt or fish, so long as I never watched TV during daylight hours. I went to college at the University of Montana and managed to get my degree at the same time I hunted and fished throughout the Northwest. New England beckoned me home after I graduated (I am a striped bass fanatic) and I settled in the mountains of Vermont where I was born. I am married to a remarkably patient woman who tolerates my absence every May, (turkey hunting, Hendrickson hatch, and Cinder Worm hatch) and October, (grouse, woodcock, trout, and false albacore). I have two English Setters, Doc and Wyatt, and no children.       

Most guys are like me – they get the hunting catalogs every year and flip through them, salivate over the stuff they can't afford, order the stuff they need to replace what wore out last year, all the while without giving much thought to how this gear gets a place on the page.  What are the major factors in determining what gets in and what doesn't?

There are all sorts of costs in making a catalog: postage, printing, photography and so on. Basically a product will repeat if its sales pay for the space it is given in the catalog. With the inter-web and retail being a part of our business we have to consider those sales as well. So repeat products are mostly determined if people buy them.

A new product starts as a concept on a list of products we elicit from industry people, guides, and upper management. At Orvis our owners, (upper management) do a lot of wingshooting so they tend to have good ideas for a product. I use a set of two questions before I bring any new product to market:
  1. Is this something I would be proud to own or give as a gift? This is the first thing I ask myself before anything goes into the assortment and is great to weed out the “latest and greatest” gizmos. If it is not something I would use or give someone, it’s out. 
  2. Does this product have a reason for being? Sometimes we come up with solutions for problems that did not exist in the first place. I get people telling me “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a (fill in the blank)?” Sometimes they are absolutely right and it makes the list, but sometimes you don’t need a hunting vest that can hold 42 pheasants in the game pouch.     
Is more of your job improving on existing products or looking for completely new products?

Both - I try never to be satisfied with what I did yesterday. I think what makes me good at my job is my first instinct when I get anything is to take it apart and make it work better. For upland hunting you don’t need all kinds of gizmos and gadgets. You need good boots, briar pants (especially in the North East), a vest or jacket, and gloves. If you use these things hard you will eventually need to replace them.  My hope is that when you do replace your gear the next generation lasts longer than its predecessors.   

I think most of us who hem and haw before parting with a hard-earned buck share that sentiment and it’s good to know that product developers understand it. Where are the new product ideas hatched?

All kinds of places, sometimes it is the “wouldn’t it be great if I had something to make something better?” Guides tend to give good ideas for products as they use their gear hard and see their clients with gear that either performs or does not preform.  I also look at different industries and try to get ideas from what they are doing like the mountaineering industry for light weight and durable materials or our military for carrying systems and boots. Whenever I hunt with someone I look at what they have on and ask, “I see you have (fill in the blank), how do you like those?”   

I'm sure you get your share of unsolicited gizmos that are sure to revolutionize hunting.  What's the worst product idea that ever crossed your desk? 

Without throwing anyone under the bus, to date the most amusing product submission I can remember was a foam hand with an elastic band that was a sun visor. The concept being when you are not wearing a hat you shade your eyes with a hand, hence the foam hand visor. They were willing to put Orvis on the large gold ring the hand had on it.

Wow, talk about revolutionary.  Make it out of carbon fiber and Kevlar and you’ve got the next gen for sure.  Ever hit a point where you think all the stuff anyone needs has been invented?

Not really, everything can be improved upon, unless you are a horseshoe crab, I don’t think they’ve changed in millions of years.

Do you have a core group of people you work with to develop and test new products?  Are they full-time professionals (guides) or are they serious hunters who have day jobs?

Yes, they are both. One of my best field testers is a customer who called to complain about a particular piece of gear that failed on him. His complaint was well written and very thorough so I called him to get some more information and have been using him to test gear for the past three seasons. He has a 9 to 5 job but does a lot of hunting and has been a very valuable tester. The one drawback with guides is they sometimes need things that are not practical for anyone but a guide. For example the vest with game pouches that hold 42 pheasants.

Orvis hunting product developer Brett Ference
R&D session

Best part of working for Orvis? What's a typical day at the office like?

I get to directly affect and produce things for something I love and am passionate about, that is the best part. However the job is not as glamorous as it can sound. In the course of a typical day I will answer and write emails, analyze data on spreadsheets, negotiate pricing and fabric minimums, look at shipping logistics, and call vendors asking why they changed something or why their order did not ship.

Man, I was hoping to hear about taking off at 10am, bagging a couple of grouse and cooking them for lunch in the break room, maybe with a nice merlot.  Tell your recruiting department not to use your description. How much of the time you spend in the woods is R&D and how much is just no-strings-attached hunting?

A bit of a loaded question.  Every time I go in the woods I am thinking about the products I am using and how I could make them better, but this is like background music to me now. I am completely focused on what my dog is doing and hunting. When I get back I like to replay the day in my mind -  Wow Doc held that point great, I can’t believe I missed that crosser I should have used pull away rather than sustained lead, my boots leaked. So when I am in the field I am 100% focused on hunting but when I replay the day there are thoughts that apply to my job.

Ok, what do we have to do to get more Double Barrel podcast?   Rosenbauer's great and all, but I'm a wingshooter first and foremost.

I need to commit more time to this. With all the balls I keep in the air I am just not good at making the time for it. I love doing them I just need more hours in the day.

Story of my life these days.  In a bio I found online you were listed as the captain of the Orvis drinking team.  Without going into the qualifications for this distinctive post, may I ask if you have a preferred beverage? 

Not sure where you found this, interesting. I like beer and just got into brewing which is a lot of fun. I also like bourbon. The South does some things better than anyone; fried chicken and bourbon are some of their crowning achievements to me.

If you weren't doing what you do, what would you be doing?

Anything that would let me hunt and fish as often as possible. I worked my way through school building houses, I like carpentry and the satisfaction of seeing what you did at the end of the day.


Many thanks to Brett for taking the time to talk about the life behind the curtain in hunting retail. In the interest of staying on his good side I will not give out his # or email address, so you with the Swiss Army trigger guard prototype, don't even bother asking.


  1. Great interview! I enjoy the podcast as well and would love to see some chukar love on there. Sounds like a great gig at Orvis as well!

  2. Nice interview. It's good not all companies have gone the way of A&F.