Bullets over Cleveland?

Bad times mean good business for Tom Nardone. And he’s conflicted about it.

As Republicans gather in Cleveland for their national convention this week, a host of corporations, entrepreneurs and peddlers will be selling attendees everything from double martinis to T-shirts to hats and buttons.

But at least 30 in the convention orbit – media, security guards, emergency medical staff – will be wearing Nardone’s BulletSafe bulletproof vests, sold out of his suburban Detroit warehouse for the “unbeatable price” of $299. In the past week, he’s sent two shipments there, where they are flying off the shelves at Cleveland Uniform, purveyor of work clothes for those who don’t spend a lot of time sitting in Aeron chairs.

“For the money you can’t beat it,” Jerry Bird, owner of Cleveland Uniform, said of Nardone’s vest.

Cleveland’s convention comes amid a series of staggeringly violent events, in the U.S. and abroad: Police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, the slaying of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, along with presumed terrorist attacks in Nice, France and Orlando. Add to that the clashes that sometimes accompany events involving presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the vows of Trump supporters and critics to avail themselves of Ohio’s open-carry gun laws and, well, the perils are obvious.

Wouldn’t you want to be wearing body armor?

Bird said he had 15 vests in stock last week when a representative from HBO, the premium cable channel, bought 10, and he sold the rest to individuals. He called for more, and when a shipment arrived from his supplier a day later Nardone sent another 20 down with a driver. Those sold out in two days, and Nardone personally shuttled 26 more down over the weekend.

“An ambulance company bought 12,” said Bird. “A security company bought six. Normally we sell two or three a week. But these are selling to firemen and (emergency medical) workers. Three women each bought one today.”

“I thought I’d be selling safety equipment to people who can’t afford it. I wasn’t thinking, ‘If society goes to hell in a handbasket, I’m going to be rich.’” -- Tom Nardone, bulletproof vest entrepreneur

This sort of success isn’t Nardone’s idea of something worth celebrating.

“Nothing about this feels good,” said Nardone. “It doesn’t make me cheer in the slightest. It is a strange feeling to know business is going crazy, because of why. I don’t even know how to describe it. I thought I’d be selling safety equipment to people who can’t afford it. I wasn’t thinking, ‘If society goes to hell in a handbasket, I’m going to be rich.’”

An unfilled market niche

Five years ago, Nardone was an entrepreneur on a restless search to expand his Internet sales empire – specializing in products buyers would be embarrassed to pay for in person, which is to say, mainly sex toys – when he visited a favorite restaurant in Las Vegas’s Chinatown and found it waiting for him.

“There was a bulletproof vest store, right there next to the dumpling shop,” he said.

It so happened bulletproof vests had been an interest of his for years, ever since, early in his career, he’d worked as an engineer for Sikorsky Aircraft and helped develop a new bulletproof liner for helicopter fuel tanks. The company swapped expensive Kevlar for far cheaper high molecular weight polyethylene, keeping the performance while cutting the liner costs by 70 percent.

Nardone reasoned the same switch could be made in bulletproof vests, which were then priced around $1,000. But he wasn’t in business for himself back then.

That day in Chinatown, he was, and entered the store to check on how the vest business was evolving. Many were made with the cheaper polyethylene, “but they still cost $1,000,” Nardone said.

It was clear why: Most vests were sold to police officers, via their departments. Some were custom-fitted, most were custom-branded, all factors that kept the price up. So Nardone wondered if there was a market niche for a Henry Ford-style approach to body armor – one color, simple sizing, no custom orders, low price. It turned out there was.

BulletSafe vests hit the market in August 2013. A couple early trade shows got the name out, and from there, sales took off. Nardone said he sold $2 million worth of vests last year, and is on track to get to $3.5 million this year.

Modern life, it turns out, is the best advertising he could hope for.

Mass shootings and police shootings (both police shootings of civilians and the recent assassinations of police) have the nation on edge. Then there’s the burgeoning, Internet-fed doomsday culture, which has enough people worried about EOTWAWKI (end of the world as we know it) that they’re laying in supplies of food, weaponry and, yes, bulletproof vests.

Nardone explains the three sectors that produce most of his customers – security guards, whose companies, he said, hardly ever provide body armor, because the turnover in jobs is so high; “secondary” police, those in smaller cities or those who work closely with them, such as animal control officers or parking enforcement; and “preppers,” the EOTWAWKI folks “who believe the revolution is coming, or something like it.”

And the grim cascade of headlines in recent weeks has, for better or worse, goosed sales from each of those groups.

In the mass shooting in Orlando, a bouncer at the Pulse nightclub played a role in getting patrons to safety, which drove bulletproof vest business from similarly employed individuals. A recent story featuring Nardone and BulletSafe in the Wall Street Journal brought interest from the prepper community, many of whom are well-to-do and read business newspapers, Nardone said. And police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge have left vest-less law enforcement officers understanding how exposed they might be, even in a smaller community.

Taking no chances

The Wall Street Journal story featuring Nardone stressed the concerns that such items might be bought and worn by the next mass shooter, but he said he doesn’t worry about that (too much). The vest will stop a round, “but it doesn’t make you Ironman,” he said.

He’s heard two confirmed instances where his vests have saved lives, and heard two more unconfirmed, and he thinks about those lives, of good people who were able to get through a shooting unhurt, instead.

“Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I’m selling safety equipment, not guns,” he said. “I think I understand who (my customers are).”

Still, he knows that most business owners would be ecstatic over catching a wave like this, if not this particular one.

“I remember having conversations (with customers), telling people as I’m signing off, ‘Happy to keep you safe.’ But, with this panic, now I say, ‘We’ll get ‘em right out to you.’”

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Paul Recha
Tue, 07/19/2016 - 10:03am
Tom is also founder of the Detroit Mower Gang. mowergang.com Good people
Tue, 07/19/2016 - 1:17pm
Which will be the bigger train wreck? The Republican convention or the summer Olympics in Rio?
Kevin Grand
Wed, 07/20/2016 - 11:37am
Well the south side of Cleveland is a little rough...
Robyn Tonkin
Sun, 07/24/2016 - 12:42pm
There have been many killings of police this year, but nothing close to the numbers of law enforcement deaths during the 1930's. If you want to read about mayhem on the streets, read a history of Detroit's Cleaners and Dyers War. There have always been people in American society who think anarchy is just around the corner. In the 1970's, my late father in law and a couple of my sisters in law were into the Doomsday is Right Around the Corner philosophy of life. They were burying gold jewelry in their backyards to use in the barter economy that would spring up in the wake of the impending economic collapse. I told them that if it all fell apart, they would do much better having hoarded cases of deodorant, laundry soap and whiskey...That said, the internet is spinning up more unbalanced people then fringe newsletters and clubs were able to in times past. My husband drove an ambulance in Gary, IN, 45 years ago, and if he was doing it today, I would buy him a bullet proof vest at the very least.