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Friday, August 17, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.
Vests that save lives
By Ronald D. White
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES —
U.S. Armor Corp. employees know that lives depend on every product they turn out.
The Cerritos, Calif., company makes ballistic armor vests for law enforcement and emergency workers at more than 200 law-enforcement agencies.
But police can be a tough crowd. Phoenix patrol Officer Jan Moore, for one, was skeptical when she received her custom-made vest.
"I often wondered how it could possibly save me," she said. "It was so thin and light."
She found out in June 2008 when an assailant shot her in the chest at close range with a .357-caliber handgun. The vest stopped the bullet and distributed the force of the impact.
"The vest saved my life," she said. "I was really glad I was wearing it."
Survival stories like that never get old for the husband-and-wife team that runs U.S. Armor: Stephen Armellino, 57, is president, and Jana Armellino, 47, is chief operating officer.
"I get phone calls from a user of one of our products or their spouse, thanking us for saving them from serious injury or maybe death," Stephen Armellino said. "That lets us know how important our products are to people."
Inside U.S. Armor's 25,000-square-foot factory, the assembly lines look similar to those that make expensive designer jeans. They even use some of the same cutting and sewing equipment. Not the same materials, though — U.S. Armor vests employ a variety of ballistic layers including DuPont's Kevlar aramid fiber, introduced in the early 1970s, and some of the latest, such as Spectra and Gold Flex by Honeywell International, which are polyethylene-based.
"There are a lot of different ballistic materials," Armellino said. "We will use a few layers of this style and a few layers of that style. Different fibers work differently. We keep them as light and as flexible and as comfortable as we can."
The company's biggest endorsement came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in December 2006, when the agency signed a five-year, $50 million deal with U.S. Armor that was touted as "the largest nonmilitary concealable body armor contract ever awarded in this country."
Under the contract, U.S. Armor would fill the primary armor needs of 10 federal forces, including the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Federal Air Marshals and Secret Service.
Lance Ishmael, armor and weapons instructor for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, wasn't surprised.
"Our agency has used them for about 14 years," he said. "We test them ballistically even after their time in the field, when they should be destroyed. We've shot them with various types of firearms, and I have yet to have one fail."
Armellino followed in the footsteps of his father, Richard, a pioneer in the field of body armor. In 1969 the elder Armellino founded a company called American Body Armor & Equipment on Long Island, N.Y.
Armellino started working at his father's business at age 16 and remembers his dad startling the neighbors by shooting at vests to test them — against an oak tree in their front yard.
The son's true calling appeared to be design. One of his creations, a haunting bullet-resistant mask for a SWAT team, made it into the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"I never took any courses in it," Armellino said, "but I just had an ability to design vests. I revamped the whole production facility for my father, made it more productive."
American Body Armor was sold in 1985 and eventually became part of BAE Systems. The next year, Armellino moved to California and launched U.S. Armor with one employee in a 4,000-square-foot space in a strip mall.
"It's what I knew," he said. "I realized that what I knew about the business was different from everybody else."
The early days were difficult.
"We sold during the daytime and cut the material at night. I sewed when I had to also," Armellino said. "The dealers and distributors really didn't want to work with me because they already had relationships with other manufacturers, including my father's old company."
To survive, Armellino went directly to the public-safety agencies. Often the pitches went like this: "Give me the guy that hates wearing body armor. Let me make a vest for him. We'll knock it out in like a week," Armellino said.
"I'd get it back to them, show their guys how to wear it," he said. "I would tell them, 'Look, even if you don't buy my product, you really need to educate your people. This is how to wear your body armor properly.' "
It worked. In an era of U.S. military withdrawals, many competitors are scrambling even harder for business, Armellino said, and the direct approach still resonates. So, too, does the company's mantra: that every vest should fit as well as a tailored dress suit.
Company sales have continued to range between $8 million and $12 million, and did so even during the recession. That's partly because international sales are increasing, the Armellinos said. U.S. Armor has picked up more than 2,800 new customers in the last five years, which has more than made up for losses.
The vests come in hundreds of variations of basic sizes — often customized for the wearer — and cost from $500 for a concealable vest to just under $3,000 for a fully outfitted, heavy-duty tactical vest.
The company also makes a tactical shield, bomb-suppression blankets and other items.
Production is handled by a workforce of 48.
Unlike the old days of the front-yard tree test, U.S. Armor employees check products in a shooting range made out of an old cargo container behind the sewing factory. Instead of using guns, they've rigged up a contraption composed of a firing mechanism and a removable gunlike barrel that can be changed to vary the caliber. The shooter stands behind a clear bulletproof panel and pulls a string to activate it. That's a safety provision, because sometimes the bullets bounce off the vests with considerable force.
A few years ago, Moore, the police officer, drove with her husband and infant son from Phoenix to the U.S. Armor factory to get a look at the operation. It's difficult to tell which side got the bigger charge out of the visit.
"I wanted to meet the people who helped save my life," Moore said. "I cried. They were excited to see me. They even made a vest for my son. He still wears it from time to time."
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