Being ignored by auto industry is a blessing in disguise


HexArmor is a very healthy Grand Rapids manufacturing company that isn’t quite 10 years old. Its headcount has grown from nine in 2005 to 94 today, and its SuperFabric gloves, sleeves and other forms of apparel that protect workers from serious cuts and punctures enabled it to penetrate a range of industrial and commercial markets — with one exception.

HexArmor couldn’t break into the automotive supply industry when it went into business, which today Brent Lohrmann calls “a blessing in disguise” because of the huge hit the auto industry took when the Great Recession rolled over the world.

HexArmor’s sales revenue increased by about 4 percent from 2008 to 2009, “but our competitors were down 20 to 50 percent,” he said.

Lohrmann is vice president at HexArmor, 2000 Oak Industrial Drive NE. He said he believes the company was unable to become an auto industry supplier due to the fact that it is not a union plant and the company is not minority-owned.

Lohrmann, who founded HexArmor with Steve Van Ermen in 2004, originally came to Grand Rapids in 1992 as an executive at Michigan Bulb. However, a couple of years later the famed mail-order flower-bulb company was bought out by an out-of-state competitor, which eventually went bankrupt. Lohrmann left after a couple of years and began working in Chicago as a partner at Diamond Management & Technology Consultants.

He said after the 9/11 terror attacks, air travel became much more difficult. Both he and Van Ermen, also a partner at Diamond, had been traveling a lot on business, so they decided to develop a business venture of their own. Both were already private equity investors in SuperFabric, developed by Young-Hwa Kim and produced in Minnesota by Higher Dimension Materials Inc.

SuperFabric, which is a competitor with Kevlar, was developed for making a glove that could stop a medical needle or surgical blade, according to the SuperFabric website. Now the material has been adapted for uses in industry, sports and military applications, to name a few.

“I didn’t know anything about (manufacturing) gloves or personal protection equipment at all,” recalled Lohrmann.

Their first attempt at a product was a home gardening glove for the consumer market. Van Ermen and Lohrmann decided to try marketing it on QVC, a cable television shopping network.

“The morning we went on (QVC) was the morning we got (Saddam) Hussein, so no one was watching,” said Lohrmann.

They soon decided to shift their focus to SuperFabric gloves for a different market: industry. They formally launched HexArmor in 2004, which was their first real year of revenue, according to Lohrmann.

Today, annual growth in sales is in the double digits, with customers in 45 countries. HexArmor does not reveal its annual sales numbers.

Not all HexArmor products are made in the 46,000-square-foot Grand Rapids plant, but the arm and leg protection products are made there, which includes about 10,000 sleeves a month. Steel products and various other types of metal manufacturing are customers, along with oil and gas production and exploratory drilling. The lumber industry is a good market, too. HexArmor supplies plywood manufacturing plants with safety gloves and aprons.

Lohrmann noted that the thin sheets of wood that are laminated to make plywood can be very hazardous to handle without personal protection equipment. Many plywood plants kept wood-shard removal kits among their first-aid supplies, but HexArmor has reduced demand for the kits, he said.

The name HexArmor comes from the hexagonal pattern in the SuperFabric textile, which does not leave any continuous unreinforced strip in any direction that might otherwise permit a sliding blade stroke to penetrate.

HexArmor holds product design patents, and the company is “definitely a step above” would-be competitors, said Lohrmann. All product design is done at the plant in Grand Rapids.

He added wryly that “we don’t use the P word here.”

That’s P as in proof, as in cut-proof or puncture-proof. In other words, HexArmor is very careful not to make any claims that its products are “cut-proof.” That’s on the strict advice of the corporate attorneys, of course.

Competitors in the almost-cut-and-puncture-proof fabrics for safety equipment include Honeywell, 3-M and DuPont, which owns the Kevlar brand.

Even “armored” safety gloves wear out, however, and because they are a consumable product, Lohrmann said he can sometimes notice when an industrial customer apparently has shut down production for a couple of weeks.

With the escalation in health care cost comes higher workers’ compensation and insurance costs, so safety products have a growing industrial/commercial market that hardly existed a couple of generations ago. Now, 15 people work in sewing at the HexArmor plant, making gloves, sleeves and other products.

Which leads to a logical question: If SuperFabric is so cut- and puncture-resistant, how can it be made into gloves? On a plant tour, Lohrmann pointed out a 25-ton press used to die cut precise patterns of SuperFabric that are then attached with adhesive to the glove fabric.

HexArmor is always looking for new markets. For instance, it now is marketing to emergency first responders who use power equipment to free motorists trapped inside wrecked vehicles. The increasing number of recycling companies is another growing market: Employees who sort through household trash are at risk of encountering discarded needles used by diabetics. Even hospital laundry workers are a market for HexArmor gloves because scalpels can sometimes inadvertently end up in the dirty laundry.

Lohrmann said the company’s team of eight sales professionals based around the country particularly enjoy their work because of the obvious benefit to workers and their families — and that’s something they often include in their sales presentations. Because of industrial personal protection equipment, “Somebody’s going to be able to go home tonight and play with their kids,” said Lohrmann.

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