When Fred Wagenhals heard Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s desperate plea for ammunition, the AMMO Inc. chairman and chief executive officer took action.
Further suggested by his board member, NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Richard Childress, Wagenhals donated 1 million rounds of ammunition to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“We believe in democracy and freedom,” Wagenhals says in his office, surrounded by NASCAR memorabilia. “What is happening over there is crazy. It’s terrible.
“This guy’s (Vladimir Putin) a madman. This guy is the only guy who has his finger on the button. He can do whatever he wants. Here, it takes an act of Congress to push a button. We have to be careful.”
AMMO Inc. manufactures 762s, the bullet the Ukrainian soldiers need to fight Russia’s invading army. Although AMMO Inc. is based in the Airpark, it produces ammunition and weapon components in Wisconsin.
“We’ve received an overwhelming response from our shareholders, customers, vendors and partners in support of our donation offer to help the Ukrainian Armed Forces in their fight for freedom,” Wagenhals says.
“I’m grateful for everyone’s generosity and willingness to provide additional financial support to supplement our efforts. The management team is working around the clock to navigate the logistical and legal complexities involved in seeing that the ammunition is swiftly delivered to the proper parties in Ukraine.”
Getting the bullets there was challenging, but Wagenhals turned to Rep. Victoria Spartz, who serves in Indiana’s fifth district. She is the first and only Ukrainian American in Congress.
“I took her call, and she was crying,” he said.
“She’s very instrumental in the handoff. I could tell how passionate she is about this. Between Richard Childress and myself, we’ve been getting text messages and emails — like stacks of them — from people who want to donate.”
Those wishing to donate funds can visit https://bit.ly/AMMOUkraine. The week of March 28, Wagenhals adds the ammunition safely arrived in Ukraine.
“I’ve had one guy wanting to give me $25,000, and I met another guy who wanted to give me $10,000,” he says.
“Richard Childress said people were just dropping off money at his winery I just had to get that money in the right people’s hands. We have to make sure everything is done properly.”
Coming to Arizona
Wagenhals grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, about 40 miles from Columbus, and 70 miles from Cleveland.
Like most folks, Wagenhals couldn’t stand the Midwest snow any longer and relocated to Arizona.
“I had the cabdriver take me to Lincoln and Scottsdale roads,” he says. “There was a hotel. I stayed there and got up one morning and everybody was happy. Everybody was smiling. Everybody was polite. I figured out it must be the weather. I moved here in ’77.”
He enjoys the Western lifestyle and the cowboys.
“I never looked back and never wanted to go back,” he says.
In 1992, Wagenhals founded Action Performance Companies, a simple ideal that grew into a multimillion-dollar business.
“I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal that said baseball cards is a $500 million business,” Wagenhals says. “I said, ‘You know, why don’t I take a little die-cast car and put it with a trading card and come out with it?’”
At the time, the movie “Days of Thunder” was about to be released. Wagenhals traveled to China and met with the producers to see if he could have exclusive rights to manufacture its die-cast promotional cars. They turned him down because Matchbox had the rights. He asked about the premium promotions and those were handled already.
He turned his focus to Exxon, another partner. It agreed to offer Wagenhals’ cars for 99 cents when drivers filled up at Exxon gas stations.
“I went to the factory in China and they told me to put up the money because they weren’t going to build these little cars unless they had a letter of credit,” he recalls.
“I went to Exxon and said, ‘You need to give me a letter of credit so I can give the Chinese a letter of credit.’ I didn’t know anything about letters of credit. They said, ‘We give letters of credit to countries, not people.’”
The only remaining options were for Exxon — or Wagenhals — to write a $3.5 million check.
“So Exxon writes me this check,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Holy Christ. What if I don’t deliver?’”
He was honestly more confident than that — until tragedy struck. An infamous oil tanker dubbed the Exxon Valdez spilled oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989.
“They called me up and said, ‘Cancel the program,’” he says. “I said, ‘What do you mean ‘Cancel the program? You already paid me.’ They said the Valdez just happened and they didn’t want publicity. They said to just ship all the cars to every one of the stations and let them do whatever they want with them.”
Collectors bought entire racks of cars and, subsequently, the cars went for $9 on the resale market.
Wagenhals teamed up with Earnhardt to sell his merchandise, and then “locked everybody up exclusively.
“I owned all the rights. NASCAR woke up one day and they were (mad). They said, ‘You own our drivers.’ I owned their rights because they were all independent contractors.”
He even persuaded Earnhardt to change the color of his car and T-shirts for one race.
“He said, ‘Are you nuts? Get out of here.’ He almost threw me out of this motor coach,” he says with a laugh. “I said it was the 25th anniversary of R.J. Reynolds sponsoring NASCAR. We’ll do a silver car for one race.
“Nobody will know about it. We’ll announce it the week before the race and I’ll have a trailer’s full of merchandise.’ He didn’t want to do it, but I guaranteed him $1 million for one race and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Wagenhals sold $22 million in merchandise that day, and paid Earnhardt $3.5 million for one race.
“Earnhardt said, ‘What are we doing next year?’”
Thank you, next
Wagenhals sold Action Performance Companies in December 2005 for $245 million.
In 2016, he moved into a different field — ammunition. AMMO Inc. was acquired to change, innovate and invigorate the complacent munitions industry. The company designs and manufactures products for a variety of markets, including law enforcement, military, hunting, sport shooting and self-defense.
The Airpark-based company has manufacturing operations in Northern Arizona and Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
“I saw a niche market and I’m always the guy who thinks, ‘How can I take something and build it into something bigger?’” he says.
“I saw an opportunity here and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to take this company public because I’d done it before. I’d been public. I went to all my NASCAR buddies. I made them a lot of money. I raised $5 million and said, ‘OK, let’s build this company together.’”
AMMO is bound to be successful, Wagenhals says, because of the prevalence of guns.
“Joe Biden and Obama are probably the two greatest gun salesman in the world,” he says.
“Every time they open their mouth, people run out and buy more guns, more ammo. Second Amendment, in my opinion, is the greatest thing that ever happened to this country. I mean, nobody’s ever going to land on our shore and try to take this country over. There are 80 million guns registered out there, right? Probably another 80 million that aren’t registered, right? Nobody will ever take this country over. No.
“But I think we got a lot of world unrest. Things aren’t like they should be. And I’m happy that we donated this ammo. People asked me what the cost of that was. Our cost would be about $700,000. So, it was not a small donation. It was big for a company our size, but it’s for the right cause.”
Wagenhals says retirement isn’t in his sights, but when it is, he’ll leave his company to his grandchildren.
“I will probably be one of those guys who just dies at my desk, or while I’m driving to work in the morning,” he says.
“I’m not complaining. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I barely got out of high school. I was a hotrodder and I spent all my time working on my car. I came up with a couple good companies. I’ve been an inventor my whole life.
“I got all the credit because I got to be the guy at the top. What made me proudest of anything is 21 of my people became millionaires when they left. I’m not going to do AMMO alone. There are people helping me with that and they’re all going to be rewarded. I’m a firm believer in everybody needs to go home with a paycheck, but if we get it to a particular level, everybody wins.”