Taking their best SHOT
With lives on the line, it’s quality that counts in the personal safety market, finds Colin Cardwell
IT IS March 27, 2013, in the desert near El Paso, Texas, and it is, says Sam Sarkar, a good day to get shot. Dean, an enormous American in a baseball cap obliges, first shooting Sarkar at close range with a 9mm bullet, then hacking at him with a machete before, for good measure, stabbing him in the side.
The video on Sarkar Defence’s website shows a confident, if somewhat relieved, Sarkar remove his stab-and-bullet resistant vest to reveal … no damage whatsoever. “Excellent stuff,” he concludes, before the façade dissolves and he vents his feelings in the earthier terms one might expect of a former naval officer.
Sarkar’s story – and that of the company – is remarkable: in its inception, its niche market and its success. Based at the Hillington Industrial Estate in Renfrewshire, the company, the products of which include body armour, ballistic vests and helmets, this year won a soughtafter Queen’s Award for Enterprise in international trade and has a
customer base in which the US Marine Corps lines up beside the Spanish navy, Italian special forces, the United Nations Protection Force, the Los Angeles Police Department and a platoon of others.
Starting manufacturing in Scotland in 2009, just as many other small companies were battening down the hatches in the face of the recession, it recently set up Sarkar Defense LLC in Texas to serve clients in the USA and Latin America.
It has been a breathtakingly fast ride and dramatic learning curve for Sarkar, who moved to Scotland from India when he was 15 and studied engineering, first at Stow College then the University of Strathclyde, before joining the navy. He served onboard frigates and destroyers, taking part in anti-drugs patrols in the Caribbean. “You got to chase the bad guys and that was fun,” says the 35-year-old, who has a penchant for self-deprecating laughter that does not totally hide a determination to make the company with his name above the door a global success story.
That door leads in to an intriguing warren of old buildings at the former Rolls-Royce plant in Hillington Industrial Estate where Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were built during the Second Word War. Sarkar arrived there four years ago with some clothes, personal belongings, his dogs – and very little else.
On leaving the navy he had joined NATO’s Submarine Rescue Team based at Faslane, which was called to the scene of the Kursk incident, and was spending his time between the Clyde and Virginia Beach in the USA, much of it in a small submersible rescue vehicle – which resulted in his developing palpitations at the great depths at which the crews were operating. He received a medical discharge. He grins: “You know, for a professional sailor I’m not that comfortable with water at all.”
So, sitting in Glasgow, with his belongings stored in an old factory, he was self-employed and focusing on the fact that there was no military pay cheque when, as he puts it, the notion of supplying body armour came almost by accident. He had started looking at importing items – from India, China and Taiwan. “I was working out of my bedroom at first so manufacturing was not something I was thinking about. The problem was that the materials I received from other countries looked terrible, at least to me, and what few orders I was getting I wasn’t able to fulfil. I even tried buying from manufacturers in the UK but, again, I wasn’t happy with the quality.”
Business was slow and there were cash flow issues when help arrived, ironically, in the form of international bankers. “At the height of the downturn two bankers from Switzerland called me and asked for antistab and bulletproof vests. Because it was only two or three units nobody else would make it, so I went to Geneva to meet DuPont and they helped me with materials.”
Returning to Scotland Sarkar set about fulfilling the order in what now seems a totally audacious way. “We had no machinery so I bought a machine on eBay to sew them on and got a cutting table. In fact, everything was bought on eBay.” The response from Switzerland was positive and when a US company placed an order for 200 units the tempo quickened dramatically.
Glitches with sourcing from another UK company meant that Sarkar was faced with cancelling the order – or making everything in Hillington on an unprecedented scale, one which required a huge degree of improvisation, from the kitchen table up.
“We used old pallets for rollers, I got a local lady from Stepps to help with the vests and that’s how we did it – sitting there all day and all night, making it work.”
This was a huge new vista opening up for a one-man (and his dogs) business. “Once we started making everything here, we never looked back,” he says. The company began to grow and he was joined in 2010 by a talented designer, Howai Wong, after a fortuitous chance encounter. “We met in the pub,” recalls Sarkar. “He was between jobs and showed up the next day for work. Now he’s our production leader for soft armour and still our resident web designer, though he does have some help now.”
And is responsible for the website currently hosting that dramatic footage, matter-of-factly titled “Sam gets shot, slashed and stabbed”.
The total reliability and integrity of the product, though, is something that is undenianiably crucial inn a business where ere people’s lives es l i t e r a l l y depend on it. “When I was in t he military r y you were given ven your equipment. pment. That was it:: the only thing you hadad to rely on. If you are in the fieldeld or at sea you can’t just go to thee shop and swop it for another, like a T-shirt. So we under-understand that wee havehave to get it right the first time. Nothingothing can leave this place unless it’s perfect.”
It is a highh benchmark but one which Sarkarr sayssays is beingbeing achievedachieved by his Scottishh workforceworkforce in Hilling-Hillington and the burgeoningburgeoning order book concurs. Unsurprisingly, no-one in the business has come from a background in body armour engineering. “People can be taught and most
‘WHATEVER WE MAKE, WE MAKE TO SAVE PEOPLE’S LIVES, SO OUR BUSINESS IS BEST WHEN IT’S PEACETIME’
people are trained across the departments because we have to keep a lean team.”
A business, he says, has to do more than make money. “We have to be socially conscious and are engaged in a variety of youth employment schemes in Glasgow: three or four of our guys were unemployed young people and we have trained them from age 17 onwards, and we took on a sales and marketing person from Invest in Renfrewshire.” The company is, he reports, funded almost exclusively from sales. “We don’t have a penny of overdraft and are going to take on some private investors this year who want a stake in the company. That will allow us to take it to the next stage – I don’t care if I own the majority of the shares; my main concern is to make the business successful, t o g row i t and keep it stable. And that’s it.”
Keeping up with demand i s a challenge, if a w e l c o m e one. “Almost 90% of what we do make now is for armed forces and police forces. We have a significant order for the Jamaica Defence Force – they contacted us. And we recently got an even larger one from Turkey which is a crucial one for us; we have to supply on time.”
It will mean increasing the workforce of 20 by around six. “We have expanded very fast but any growth has to be managed, otherwise you are a flash in the pan, so we are at a stage now at which we are looking at consolidating,” Sarkar says.
New markets still beckon, though. “We have just done a contract for Malaysia, and for the presidential guard of Indonesia. We are definitely looking at emerging markets and in my opinion one is going to be Africa.”
Does that conflict-ridden continent not pose other problems? Sarkar has a straightforward answer. “Africa is taking its time but there are markets there now that are looking to stabilise. And whatever we make, we make to save people’s lives, so our business is best when it’s peacetime and what we are looking for are stable governments to supply to.”
People, he adds tellingly, do not buy body armour in wartime; they buy guns. “And nothing leaves us unless we have a full export licence. We have our own guidelines and are a very regulated industry, especially in the UK – there are lot of checks and balances.”
The Queen’s Award, with the right to use the emblem for five years, has been a definite boost to the company’s image overseas. “By putting it on the website we get through a lot of initial chaff and questions about ensuring our credibility,” he says. “We are becoming a very self-sufficient armament factory which means we can do everything from complete personal protection systems to hard armour, soft armour – and the next plan is to look at vehicles and aircraft.”
Even for Sarkar, is that not a very ambitious aim? “I don’t think in business you can ever stagnate,” he says. “Innovation and making new things is going to be the cornerstone of our success – pushing the boundaries and giving good people good jobs.”
It will take a lot to shoot down that level of confidence.
HARD-HEADED BUSINESS: Sam Sarkar at his Glasgow base, left.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY: this blast shield is part of a fast increasing range of equipment.