A partnership with a German firm will allow Grand Rapids-based HexArmor to expand its lines of personal protective equipment. Courtesy HexArmor
Steve Van Ermen recalls a steel industry client who had more than 170 serious injuries per year before he called Van Ermen.
As the co-founder, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based HexArmor, Van Ermen was able to cut those injuries to zero with the company’s patented safety product, which is more than 10 times stronger than Kevlar.
“They had significant and serious injuries; when you get cut, it’s not clean,” Van Ermen said. “They put on our products and never had another, at least until I lost track six years in.”
Last month, the company partnered with German-based uvex Winter Holding to expand the company’s safety equipment line in the United States. Van Ermen believes the partnership will help HexArmor secure more of the $38 billion annual personal protective equipment market, which ranges from head to foot protection and everything in between.
Prior to the partnership, HexArmor sold only hand, leg and arm protection, and uvex had lacked an American presence since it was sold in 1994. Now, HexArmor will help reintroduce uvex’s line of eyewear, footwear, head protection, respiration and hearing equipment. Van Ermen said the partnership with the 90-year-old European company makes sense, as their cultures fit together with complementary products.
“After an absence of more than 20 years, the partnership with HexArmor clearly signals the return of the uvex safety group to the American safety products marketplace," uvex safety group CEO Stefan Brueck said. "HexArmor is a trusted advisor to safety professionals and workers across North America. The HexArmor brand represents innovation and high performance in hand protection, a perfect platform for the uvex safety group in the Americas. Additionally, their track record of growth, even through the market events of the past two years, is quite impressive."
The partnership will be rolled out slowly, Van Ermen said, but will begin with eyewear, which has been in the works for nearly a year and a half. HexArmor products will gain new entry into uvex markets, and uvex products in North America will be sold as HexArmor products.
Van Ermen and co-founder Brent Lohrmann started the company in 2004 when they bought exclusive rights to the cut-and-puncture-resistant technology SuperFabric from a firm they had invested in when they were management consultants at Diamond Management & Technology Consultants in Chicago. They had moved on from the consulting gig in 2001 and were in Michigan looking for a change of pace when they started helping the company with the technology.
The company had wanted help selling the technology, so the pair eventually started HexArmor and secured the exclusive rights to the technology.
Focusing largely on industrial clients, whom are often prone to nasty cuts and punctures that can result in loss of use or loss of digits, the firm looked to cut down on the injuries. The technology can stop slicing action of jagged cutting edges and puncture wounds ranging from sharp glass to hypodermic needles.
The technology can be used in various ways by configuring little plates to be more protective for different threats, such as cutting, puncture, pinch and impact. The flexibility in the technology offers the ability to alter and innovate for various clients who have specific issues, Van Ermen said.
An early success included solving an issue Waste Management had long dealt with, Van Ermen said.
“We had a lot of work to do to build the market awareness,” he said. “People really wanted something better to protect employees, so we just had to tell them.”
Since launching in 2004 with just two employees, HexArmor has grown into an international safety supplier, and its equipment can be found in 75 countries. Despite having almost all 150 employees located in Grand Rapids, Van Ermen said HexArmor hasn’t yet grabbed much of the safety equipment market share in Michigan.
Working with customers asking about new eyewear led to the eventual partnership with uvex.
“Customers were looking for the same performance because there are a lot of commodity products,” Van Ermen said. “We want that edge and advantage in safety. Most of what is sold is made in a few plants in Asia, and there’s no differentiation.”
The new partnership means HexArmor will be growing its employee base in Grand Rapids, especially in marketing and sales, Van Ermen said. Despite not providing the company with much revenue, Van Ermen said the entrepreneurial support of West Michigan has been crucial to HexArmor’s growth.
Van Ermen said HexArmor has partnered with some of the largest companies in the world that were looking for elite safety protection for their employees.
“A lot of companies say they’ll spend $1 million to prevent an injury,” Van Ermen said. “That’s who we want, not the customers who are just satisfied with low injury rate. We learn how people get hurt and a company’s operations.
“If we don’t have a product that works, we’ll figure out something that does.”