Courtesy of the Jacksonville Business Journal
For Safariland’s Jacksonville manufacturing site, focusing more on making military products was a big change.
After acquiring Mustang Survival in 2013 and manufacturing that line in West Virginia, they found it was a difficult, remote location to get to, especially with added military personnel from different branches frequenting the facility to test and inspect products.
Jacksonville was just the opposite. There was already infrastructure in place from the company’s headquarters, so no brick-and-mortar expansion was necessary. Throughout 10 months, Safariland shifted forensics and firearms productions from their Jacksonville headquarters to their facility on Faye Road where they already manufacture holsters and moved in the Mustang Survival line to the freed up space.
Now, $1.9 million and 108 new jobs later the Mustang Survival line–consisting of personal flotation devices, dry suits and gravity suits–is running at 85 percent efficiency six months after its installation.
But getting everything running has been a process, said Blake Brown, vice president of manufacturing for Safariland. Dealing more with the military has been a lot to get used to: the products are more specialized and they’re designed as a “joint effort” between the military and Safariland.
“Just learning how to manage in a military contract world, it’s not the norm for us,” Brown said. “Not that we don’t do military products, but doing it like this is different. This is heavy gauge military contract business is what this is.”
Staffing the new line in Jacksonville also proved to be a challenge at first. When they moved the Mustang Survival line out of West Virginia, Safariland offered 70 employees relocation, said PJ Wilson, supervisor of Safariland’s human resources. Of those 70, only eight chose to relocate to Jacksonville which meant to staff the new line in Jacksonville, more people would need to be hired and some workers from other parts of the factory would need to be retrained on the Mustang Survival line.
Wilson said each person who needed to be trained would cost the company $10,000 to $12,000 per person. But with help from grants from CareerSource Northeast Florida and the city, they were able to offset some of the costs of training.
“You bring someone off the street, it takes six months to train,” Brown said. “If you bring someone who’s been sewing for 20 years over [to the Mustang Survival line], it’s harder sewing but they’re accustomed to industrial sewing so they got used to it quicker.”
Part of the extra cost in training stems from the difficulty and complexity of manufacturing the dry suits and gravity suits. Brown said the gravity suits are “the most complicated product we have to build.”
Fighter pilots wear gravity suits, which have air pumped into the legs of the suit when the pilot hits G-force speeds to pump the blood that rushes into their legs back into the brain to keep them from passing out.
The dry suit production required “a specialized skill that we did not have,” Brown said. Dry suits are used by mainly the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard and keep its user dry and warm in the event they go into the water, especially in colder waters.
“It’s not a product you want to fail on you,” Brown said. “In the North Atlantic, you don’t want any leaks, the cold water will cause your blood to do weird things. It’ll shut your system down.”
The dry suits are sealed with hot tape to ensure no leaks occur and the product is tested until they show they don’t have any leaks. Safariland brought in help from their British Columbia plant, where Mustang Survival production is based, to help train and refine the skills of those sealing the suits to maximize their efficiency down the line.
Adapting to new changes in the company, however, is something those at Safariland are accustomed to doing. Brown said the company expands primarily by acquisition of similar, smaller companies and with every acquisition, there’s a “plateau” period where the company needs to “stabilize” and figure out the logistics of their new acquisitions.
But it won’t be too long before more acquisitions come along, Brown said. And when they do, it’s possible Jacksonville may be the place for them.
“We do have another lot next door [to the Jacksonville corporate headquarters], so we do have expandable space, and we do have a little more land over at the operation at Faye Road,” Brown said. “So we have some room in Jacksonville, so we will see what happens.”