On Top of the World: Mikhail Orlov ’96 Discusses His Ladder to Success

Westminster College recently ran across an article featuring alumnus Mikhail Orlov ’96 ΒΘΠ in the 2014 issue of Inc. Magazine titled “How a Russian Expat Started Selling Guns and Ammo to American Hunters,” found here. We were intrigued and had a few questions of our own. Read further to find out more about how Orlov’s passions for business, hunting, and the United States have melded into a lucrative corporation with an annual revenue of approximately $49 million.

What did you first consider doing for a profession after you graduated from Westminster? During my last year at Westminster, I reached out via snail mail to several multinationals: Kodak, PepsiCo, and a few others with a hope of landing a dream job with their Russian business development divisions. My letters were more akin to Hail Mary passes than anything else. I did not know anyone that worked there, and I did not know what it meant to sell my skills. For each one I sent, I received back a “thank you, you have an impressive resume, we will file it away where no one will ever see it” response. There was a lesson in that experience of what happens when there is no plan or strategy. 

Unable to land a “real” job, I went into car sales and did it for a year and a half. At the time, I wondered what John Langton would say about my choice, since he always told me I needed to join the Russian Foreign Services. In hindsight, the time I spent selling cars was the best business school. Even now, when someone asks me what they should study if they want to be an entrepreneur, I tell them to go sell cars for three to six months. It’s a microcosm of every business.

How did you get into selling guns and other items to hunters? Unlike Yuri Orlov from the 2005 movie Lord of War, played by Nicolas Cage, I never thought I would be selling firearms in America. When I launched Weby Corp in 2010 with my two business partners, our goal was to build a new breed of retailing company that would be a technology company at the core.  We knew instinctively that brick and mortar retailing would have to evolve, not die off, but it was not necessarily clear at the time what the model would look like. What eventually emerged was the omni-channel retailing concept that merged community-focused brick and mortar (www.RunUnited.com is one of such examples in our portfolio) with cloud-based ecommerce retailing through both our own websites and also marketplaces, like Amazon and Ebay.  It was the growth of the latter that eventually led us to consider adding firearms to the mix. Amazon is an 800-pound gorilla, or more accurately 800-billion pound Godzilla when it comes to retailing, but it does not want to get involved in firearms or firearm-related activities. We saw this as a business opportunity to build a modern retailer to serve the needs of American firearm enthusiasts and provide them with the same level of customer service and technology, or better than, Amazon or eBay. And that’s how www.1800GunsAndAmmo.com was born.

What do you like the most about your profession? The least? I am a retailer. I buy and sell products that other people make. Most consumer goods are not life necessities. To stay relevant, brands need to innovate without ceasing. On the retailing side, human purchasing behavior is changing. Retailers have to redefine themselves to stay in the game. Witnessing this innovation and taking part in it is what I enjoy about being a retailer.

Geopolitical risks and constraints is what I like the least. They often defy common sense and produce the feeling of powerlessness. Until 2014, one of the fastest-growing and profitable parts of our business was with Russia. We were bringing American-style eCommerce and product assortment to Russian consumers, who were rewarding us with their loyalty and support. The sanctions placed on Russia in 2014 and the collapse in oil prices effectively killed that part of our business.

If you could choose any career or job circumstance, what would it be? I am the connector of dots. I recognize patterns and build them into systems. I am not good at operations or maintenance. All my vegetable gardens die a few months after planting. But they sure look good when they first sprout. At work, I have been blessed with a great team of managers and operators that can take any system we develop and operate it with excellence and continuous improvement.

Would I choose a different career or job circumstance? I don’t know, because I сan only lean on what I experienced so far, and I would not change my path. As I look to the next phase in life, I see myself and my company changing from being a retailer of other people’s brands to the developer and launcher of direct-to-consumer products of our own making. We have built the rocket — now we just need to find some astronauts to put in it.

Do you remember the name of the exchange program that first brought you to Westminster? I came to Westminster in the summer of 1991 to attend Churchill Academy: a two-week summer enrichment camp for gifted students from Missouri and surrounding states. I was 15 years old. The Berlin Wall came down a few years prior, and the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent. Reagan and Gorbachev began student exchange programs around that time, and I was one of the lucky ones selected to experience Americana.

It was during this camp that I met two professors that would forever change my life: John Langton and Bill Young. Bill was in charge of Churchill Academy, and John taught one of the classes in it. I remember John asking me to do a short talk on what it was like growing up in the USSR. I wrote out half a notepad full of notes, spent several hours going over them, but when I stepped into the classroom it was as if time disappeared. I do not remember anything specific of what we talked about, other than I spoke without looking at my notes at all. After the class was over, John took me aside and asked me if I would consider coming to Westminster for my undergraduate degree. I could not even fathom this possibility at that time. My family could not afford to send $100 with me to the camp, much less pay for my education. John told me not to worry but to go back to Russia and finish out my senior year in high school.

I came to Westminster College in the fall of 1992, becoming the second recipient of the Breakthrough Scholarship. At the time, it was awarded to the students from the former Eastern Bloc countries with the goal to foster relationships and mark an end to the Cold War. George Parkins ’67, a renowned orthopedic surgeon in Kansas City, and Jack Marshall ’53, Vice-President of Development at Westminster College, made the scholarship possible. There may have been others that helped as well, but I do not know their names. In any case, I am forever grateful for the opportunity.

What is your hometown? Where do you currently live? I am originally from Moscow, Russia.  I was born there and attended high school. I currently live in Flower Mound, Texas, which is part of Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.

What was your impression of Westminster when you arrived here? Moscow is a city of 11 million people. Coming to Westminster was like landing on a whole different planet. The difference in climate alone was striking, but people, especially the professors, made me feel welcome. It was a tough adjustment culturally, socially, and academically, but I would not change the experience. It made me who I am today, and for that I am grateful.

What was your major at Westminster? I majored in political science and international studies. I have John Langton to blame for that first one. 

What other degrees have you received? I have an MBA from Southern Methodist University. It took me six years to finish a two-year degree, as I was doing it at night and had to leave Texas for California for a few years. But as they say down South, “I got back to Texas as fast as I could.” I ended up graduating from SMU in 2004 with an MBA in strategy and finance.

What organizations outside of work are you involved in? If any organizations hold particular significance for you, please explain. I am blessed to love what I do. My work is my life, and I see it changing lives of others for the better every day. I find purpose in it. Witnessing an employee, especially a young one, face a problem, not back down or pass the buck, solve it, and build a system gives me a sense of joy of being a small part of his or her experience that makes it all worthwhile.

How did your Westminster education help you find your purpose? Westminster was a school of hard knocks for me. I do not look back at Westminster as an academic-only education. It was a school of life for me.  I came to Westminster with $100 in my pocket, I was broke, I was a “Communist,” an outsider, sharing little in common with my peers, other than being young and full of piss and vinegar.

It would have been easy to wallow in self-pity and the comparison between haves and have nots, but I saw the opportunity for learning, for discovering patterns, for connecting the dots, for slowly peeling back the curtain called “adult life,” even if the ultimate goal was not clear at the time.

And through all of that, I was blessed to be surrounded by people that took interest in who I was, took me under their wing, shared their lives and resources with me, and ultimately revealed that our purpose in life is simple: Help your fellow man.

What is your favorite Westminster memory? Arguing pros and cons of political systems with James Sellers ‘95, a good friend of mine, after John Langton’s class. 

What do you consider your greatest success? I have two kids that are 12 and 10. Ask me this question again when they are grown and have kids of their own.

Based on your experience with the College, would you recommend Westminster to prospective college students? Westminster is not a fit for every student. In a lot of ways, Westminster is a microcosm of American society as a whole. It offers you unique opportunities that you won’t find at other universities, but you have to do the work. No one is going to do it for you. It’s really what you make of it. Westminster is a good fit for students that have the discipline to push themselves to new heights, that want to put themselves in the arena, to try on different hats and get feedback from world-class faculty on a first-name basis. The latter is a unique value that sets Westminster apart. 

Do you stay in touch with anyone from your Westminster days? Have you been back since graduation to visit the College? I have a small group of Westminster friends that I visit with from time to time. Several of them live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I have been back to Westminster three or four times since I graduated. I was impressed by all the new buildings and infrastructure that’s gone up since 1996.

Favorite Westminster faculty member(s)? John Langton, Carolyn Perry.

Spouse’s name and occupation? Amy Orlov – Orlov Clan Commander in Chief.

Children? Zachary Orlov (12) and Brooke Orlov (10).

A book you would recommend to others? Resilience by Eric Greitens and Sapiens by Yuval Harari.

Do you have a favorite quote? “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Favorite movie? Braveheart, Dead Poets Society, The Shawshank Redemption.

What do you do in your free time? I am reliving my childhood dream by playing in a recreational hockey league.

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Sarah Rummel Backer

Sarah Rummel Backer is the Director of Media Relations and Senior Writer at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. A proud Westminster graduate, Sarah has more than 20 years of experience in marketing and strategic communications in the areas of higher education, medicine, agriculture, and the private business sector.