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, it is the oldest mail-order retailer in the United States.
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. The company has changed hands only twice and has had only five CEOs in its history.
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 US$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. Historian Kenneth Cameron has written that Perkins' accomplishment was to "define the look of contemporary fly fishing and the entire social universe in which it fits, no small achievement."
Charles Orvis and Mary Orvis Marbury have been inducted into the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Amongst their successors at Orvis, Dudley Corkran, Wes Jordan, Leigh Perkins, and Howard Steere could all be regarded as legitimate candidates for eventual induction.
Since Perkins' retirement in 1992, under the leadership of Perkins' sons, CEO Leigh ("Perk") Perkins, Jr., and Executive Vice Chairman Dave Perkins, that Orvis has most fully formalized and broadened its corporate vision. Whilst Orvis has thrived and revenue has more than tripled under this second Perkins' generation of leadership, a long-simmering corporate identity crisis had to be addressed: the company's growth had strained Orvis's sense of direction - e.g. 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 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.
In 1966, Leigh Perkins launched a successful fly-fishing school in Manchester, eventually expanding into Missouri, Michigan, Virginia, Idaho and Massachusetts. As of 2006, seven Orvis schools had graduated about 40,000 students. The first Orvis shooting school, based on the long-standing British model, began training upland bird hunters in 1973. This program has also successfully grown to include schools such as Mays Pond Plantation in Monticello, Florida, and Orvis's shooting preserve at Orvis Sandanona in Millbrook, New York.
While Perkins was forthright in his primary goal for the schools to attract new Orvis customers, the schools have also become important mentors in the values and traditions of both sports.
Orvis has weathered the competition of every significant generation of American tackle manufacturers. When the firm was established, in 1856, its competitors were John Conroy (New York), Ben Welch (Boston), and several long-established British firms. In the early glory days of split-bamboo rodmaking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Orvis's chief competitors included both the mass-produced rods of Sears, Wards, and Chubb, and the top-end rods produced by Leonard, Kosmic, and other exclusive manufacturers of what were essentially custom-built fly rods. After World War II, as fiberglass claimed the fishing rod market, Orvis competed with the best bamboo rod builders, such as Payne, Gillum, and Garrison, while its fiberglass and graphite rods competed with Shakespeare, Fenwick, and other emerging post-bamboo-era firms.
Today, Orvis CEO Perk Perkins says that the firm's "number one product today, the American-made fly rod, has not changed its rank in the product line for 150 years. But he also emphasizes the Orvis ambition to be "the most respected lifestyle brand in America," which explains why Orvis must compete in other fields that, like fly fishing, are in fact fiercely competitive. At first glance, the venerable Maine outfitter L.L. Bean might appear to be Orvis's most obvious direct competitor, but Perkins and his Orvis team disagree. According to Perkins, "The fly fishing people [at Orvis] would say that the Sage Rod Company in Washington is our biggest competitor. The female apparel people would say J. Jill. The Gifts & Home people would say Plow & Hearth." The company continues to produce not only its extensive line of graphite and composite-fiber rods, but also a few select models of classic split-bamboo rods that are both fine fishing tools and instant collectibles.
Orvis's long record of conservation activism began with Charles Orvis's work in fisheries conservation and management in the late 19th century and has continued since. In 1994, Leigh Perkins, Orvis CEO from 1965 to 1992, received the Chevron Corporation's Chevron Conservation Award for lifetime achievements in conservation, perhaps the most prestigious such award given in the United States. Since then, under CEO Perk Perkins, Orvis has increased both the magnitude and breadth of its conservation program, and annually donates five percent (over $10 million in the last ten years) of pre-tax profits to a great variety of conservation projects.
Working in cooperation with leading professional conservation groups including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and many others, Orvis has successfully completed dozens of projects, regularly launching matching-grant campaigns in its catalogs and in the pages of the Orvis News. Recent programs include re-establishment of a migratory whooping crane flock; preservation of public access to the famous Henry's Fork trout fishery: restoration of a native golden trout population in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains; protection of long-billed curlew habitat in Montana; protection of songbird migratory corridor in Jamaica; sea turtle preservation, and the restoration of trout habitat in on the Orvis home river, the Battenkill.
Orvis helped originate Casting for Recovery, a national breast-cancer support and education program; Orvis's matching-grant program has raised $300,000 for this program.
Orvis stores exclusively offering the Orvis product line, including six large "destination" stores of at least 12,000 square feet (1,100 m2) that follow the model of the Orvis flagship store opened in Manchester, Vermont, in 2002.
As of January 2011, there are:
- 58 Retail Stores
- 10 Outlet/Warehouse Locations
- 18 Retail Stores
- 1 Outlet Stores
Orvis employs 300 people in Vermont, 450 at their service center in Roanoke, Virginia, 600 at Orvis retail stores in the U.S., 100 at Orvis outlet stores in the U.S., 200 in Orvis retail stores in the U.K., and 20 at Orvis-Gokey (boot manufacturers) in Missouri, for a total of 1,500 to 1,700 Orvis associates, depending upon seasonal sales peaks.