Tak­ing their best SHOT

With lives on the line, it’s qual­ity that counts in the per­sonal safety mar­ket, finds Colin Cardwell

The Herald Business - - Cover Story -

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


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.

Pic­ture: Phil Rider

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.

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