A lifelong passion was sparked by a 9-year-old girl’s curiosity about how her brothers’ guns worked, leading to a career in the male-dominated gun industry.
Thirty-five years ago, Debbie Yale entered the firearms industry on the line at what was then Lakefield Arms in Ontario, Canada. She didn’t know shooting, but she knew machines, and she liked knowing how things worked. She had a background as a machine operator in the food industry.
After seeing an ad for a machine operator at Lakefield, Debbie said, “I can do that!” Her can-do attitude is key to what has been a successful career, leading to her current role as production manager for Savage Arms’ Canadian plant.
Debbie didn’t have a lot of experience with guns growing up, but her brothers had a .22 rifle they used to shoot soda cans off a fence. Her brothers never really wanted to clean it, and she wanted to see how it worked, so they were more than willing to let little Debbie do the job.
Her mom joked that instead, the boys needed to teach her to be a lady; they told their mother that she could do that later. She needed to learn how to fend for herself first.
No one could predict it, but her brothers’ actions played a role in whom she has become—a female leader in firearms industry.
When she began at Lakefield in 1984, that company made everything from barrels and receivers to stocks. This was before the days of CNC machines, so, Debbie’s first job—making the front of a rifle bolt—took 13 different steps on separate machines.
After Debbie worked with bolts, she also worked with barrels and developed a sense of the “old beasts” that some of the rifling machines can be. Learning about, and working with, these tools that make the trade, she was brought into the position of lead hand in 1990.
Four years of lead hand led her to the position of shift supervisor, then senior production supervisor and on to senior supervisor in charge of both shifts. In 2001, Debbie became manufacturing supervisor, and in 2013, she was promoted to production manager for the entire plant.
She attributes her growth in her job to being curious, passionate and having had good mentors. She remarked that she was promoted by three different people; she feels that was an indicator that they saw something in her worth promoting. (In fact, hearing about Savage’s job fairs and job rotation program leaves me thinking there is something to the ethos at Savage that is about the business of hiring and building dedicated employees.)
BUILDING THOSE DEDICATED EMPLOYEES
How exactly does Savage build dedicated employees? Through high expectations and enthusiasm for the product, as well as sharing the wisdom of years in the job. While Savage employs around 130 people at Debbie’s plant, there are six supervisors (three of them women). And while the machines and a desire to know how they work sparked Debbie’s passion, the observation of the mechanics of relationships between and among people is what’s taken her so far. She called the Savage employees one of the company’s best assets and knows that the people she has worked with as mentors over the decades, who have taken notice and nurtured what they saw in her, were instrumental to her success.
The mindset to hire with high expectations and to build people—thereby to build a good product, which builds a strong brand—are components of what seems to be the key to Savage’s long-term standing in the industry.
Debbie has worn many hats while at Savage, including making parts, fixing parts and working in the health and safety department. All have contributed to the well-rounded leader she is. She worked in the warranty department with a gunsmith, further feeding her curiosity to know the “why” and “how.” Her time as the head of her plant’s health and safety department gave her perspective about how an employee’s health affects their work (such as why things such as job rotation are essential—not only for a worker’s heath, but also for the growth and synchronicity of the plant).
Debbie cites a few things as keys to building a solid production line: The teamwork involved in building employees through mentoring and the desire to see happy employees working safely are all integral.
She oversees workers who have been doing their jobs for 27 years but are willing to learn something new—and that builds their strengths. It is a chance for cross-training and seeing your job or a fellow employee through new eyes. The decades of a current employee’s experience can shape a new employee, and a new employee can offer perspective to someone who remembers that love of seeing how things work—that natural curiosity. This sounds to me much like a family, and it’s been a “recipe” for a great career and a productive plant.
Debbie attributes her growth to being skilled, wanting to see how things work, loving her job and loving people. She said she’s never observed a male-versus-female atmosphere since she’s been at Savage. Perhaps that’s a great example for the firearms industry. Women can be just as strong as men on the machining and “how-things-work” side of the industry. The passion for what they do makes them great employees and leaders.
During our phone interview, I was impressed with Debbie’s humble nature, but that is just part of who she is; her connection to the people around her is real. It reminded me that one way people come to believe in something or “buy into” any idea comes down to the need they have to feel invested in what they do; to feel connected. And when people feel as if they belong, they do their best work and strive to be better and grow.
Debbie wasn’t sure she was much of a story, but quietly building up others and continuing that ethos of curiosity and passion have helped her achieve growth and success that could only come from being connected to those with whom she works and surrounds herself. Debbie’s recipe for success comprises believing in her own dreams and what she is passionate about combined with the belief in the dreams of those around her and helping them find their passion.
For Savage, that seems to be a great style of leadership and something no paycheck could purchase. In an industry that’s not predominantly female, this nurturing leadership style might be something worth investigating.
About the author
Author Becky Yackley competes in action shooting (3 Gun, USPSA, Bianchi and IPSC) with her husband and three sons. When she isn’t shooting matches or writing, she is busy with her camera. Becky is the founder of the 2A Heritage Junior shooting camps and works in social media for several firearms industry companies
A version of this article first appeared in the August 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.