The name of Zenith Firearms is aspirational, says its owner and CEO Hanri Kaya. “We are always reaching for excellence at the highest level, because if you’re not doing that then you’ll never reach anything,” said Kaya. She and her husband Kutlay built the Afton-based import business from the ground up, driven by a desire to serve both their countries of origin and their U.S. homeland.
A native of South Africa, Kaya visited the U.S. on a gap year from college in 2000 and met Kutlay, an engineer from Turkey who had traveled to the U.S. to start a restaurant. “We had friends in Nelson County and fell in love with this community and wanted to stay here,” said Kaya. “Whitney Critzer [of Critzer Family Farm] sort of adopted both of us and married us at the Church of the Blue Ridge.” To start a business together, the couple decided to focus on how they could best help Kutlay’s struggling countrymen in Turkey.
“Trade is the one way in which any country is stable,” said Kaya, “so our first business was a carpet store that we opened in the strip across from Harris Teeter.” After importing carpet and other products from Turkey for several years, the Kayas had developed a strong network of connections between the two countries and bigger enterprises took notice. “During the ammunition shortage of 2012, Walmart contacted us about importing ammunition because we had contacts with MKE, a manufacturer in Turkey.” Thus began Zenith Quest International, the parent to Zenith Firearms.
Once the rigorous licensing process that allows the importation of ammunition was complete, it was a natural step for Zenith to bring in MKE’s firearms as well, as both Hanri and Kutlay were comfortable and experienced with guns. “My husband was in the Turkish military, and I was raised on a farm and had been shooting since I was six years old,” said Kaya, “so becoming a defense contractor for companies in Turkey made sense.” Beyond a simple business perspective, though, the owners have a more expansive view of Zenith Firearms’ role in American life.
“As I lived here in the U.S. and understood what the Constitution means, and why it makes the U.S. different from every other country, something that started as a trade project really became a passion for us,” said Kaya. “We’re raising our family here, we’re American, and this country and what it stands for in the world has to be protected.”
Kaya recalled her family in South Africa trying to protect itself from the constant threat of violence from warring political factions, gangs, and organized crime. “Coming from where I come from, knowing the position those citizens are in, I know that it would be so different if they were able to protect themselves, but they’re not,” said Kaya. “They are left vulnerable while criminals are in effect protected, and that should never be.”
By popular demand
The firearms that Zenith imports, modifies, and distributes are technically pistols, though they are not classified as handguns because their overall size generally makes them a two-handed weapon. They can be converted into a short-barreled or full-length rifle, and Zenith’s gunsmiths can do any modifications, repairs, or refurbishments of the firearms on site. All of its models arrive as semi-automatics (meaning one round per trigger-pull), but Zenith has special licensing to convert the weapons to fully automatic for specific agencies who are allowed by law to own them.
A distinctive feature of the MKE weapon is its “roller-delayed blowback” platform, which gives it less recoil and greater accuracy and reliability, plus a simple design that enables a user to easily clean and maintain the weapon. “You can strip it, replace parts and put it back together and off you go,” said Kaya. Zenith’s product line has a few competitors in the U.S. from German and Pakistani importers, but Kaya says those models are either more expensive or of lower quality.
Zenith’s only trouble right now? They are completely sold out of their imported firearms inventory. “It’s supply and demand,” said Kaya. “MKE has to supply their own government and national needs first, and [Turkey is] constantly at war, so we have to wait. But people are willing to wait because we have an excellent product and excellent customer service.” Zenith currently has 4,000 units on backorder for clients ranging from regular citizens to law enforcement and military agencies. A recent shipment of 1.5 million rounds of 9 mm ammunition from Turkey was snapped up within a day.
While they wait, the company’s dozen employees are forging ahead with other business avenues. Their 84,000-square-foot warehouse space contains a full-service retail shop, administrative offices, machinery, storage and shipping and receiving areas, plus a gun range in the basement for weapons testing, but it also has some spaces destined for future operations. “We’d like to be a full-fledged manufacturer ourselves so we can be independent,” said Kaya. “We have permission to have three shifts of 30 people to work on production, and that is our goal. Right now, the plan is in limbo, but soon we’ll be able to move it forward.”
Zenith Quest International also employs an engineering team at the site that has been designing and building drones for the past four years. “These are big drones, not the little ones people play with,” said Kaya. “Ours are intended to be used by firefighters to view an entire fire from a high angle. They are launched from a ground station and are tethered so you don’t have to use remote control to fly them, and they can auto-correct in the wind. There are lots of applications.” The company’s first drone units will be shipping next month.
No man’s land
Kaya says being a woman CEO in a heavily male industry doesn’t faze her. “Thankfully sometimes my name hides that I’m a woman,” she said with a laugh, “but what I really enjoy is going to trade shows dressed like this, working with the guys and then handing them my business card and watching their jaws drop.” (She is dressed in a t-shirt emblazoned with Virginia’s official state seal motto, “Thus Always to Tyrants,” a phrase also used to support Second Amendment rights.)
“The only thing that irks me is what we call in marketing the ‘gun bunnies,’” she said, “where all these glamorous models are used to advertise to male shooters. It does a disservice to the industry and to women to represent them in that way. Women are the largest growing population that is buying firearms, primarily for home protection. A firearm is, as they say, the ‘equalizer’—it’s the only thing that puts you in the same position as a big burly person coming at you.”
Kaya believes that a firearm is a tool and should be treated as such, with respect and proper training. She and her husband have five children in whom that respect is ingrained, and she notes that two of her teenagers are excellent skeet shooters. “When we built this building [in 2014] we encountered severe opposition from residents here in the county who didn’t agree with us that firearms are important, and who said we were destroying the scenic view,” said Kaya. “We painted the outside brown and the roof green to blend in, and we are planting trees at the roadside as well.”
Still, Kaya says she observes a pervasive misperception among some neighbors that the gun community is a bunch of fanatics who want to hurt and kill. “That is totally wrong. A gun enthusiast may find it enjoyable to shoot a firearm at a target, but there is a purpose behind the training because the day you need that skill, other people’s lives may depend on you,” she said. “It’s not for yourself, it’s to protect others. That’s why we’re all so passionate about what we do here.”