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Tucson Body-Armor Maker, Photo Device Inventor Take Different Paths To The Inc. 5000

Tucson Armor Manufacturer, Photo Device Inventor Take Different Paths To The Inc. 5000

Todd Meeks bought a personal body-armor company a few years ago from a guy who started the business in his garage southeast of Tucson, and he grew it by refining its marketing and expanding sales to law enforcement agencies.

After feeling frustrated with available products, Tucson photographer Spencer Boerup invented a new kind of modular accessory system for camera flashes and kickstarted it into a company with an international following.

Rapid growth at Boerup’s MagnetMod and Meeks’ Spartan Armor Systems landed both on Inc. Magazine’s 2018 Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies, along with four other Tucson-based companies.

MagnetMod, or MagMod, had the fastest three-year revenue growth among the listed Tucson companies, ranking 724th with growth of 689 percent to $5 million in sales in 2017.

Spartan Armor ranked No. 1,201 with a 403 percent revenue growth rate and $5.4 million in sales last year.

Further down the list of Tucson companies were:

– Brink Media, a digital marketing firm that ranked No. 3,121 after showing growth of 127 percent.
– Bodycentral Physical Therapy ranked 3,325th on 177 percent growth.
– Automatit, which provides digital marketing services to the self-storage industry, ranked No. 3,623 on 103 percent growth.
– And SolidSurface.com, which sells Corian and other acrylic countertop materials, was No. 4,595 on 70 percent revenue growth.

“Smart Growth”

Meeks was a business broker and ran UPS Store franchises when he heard about Spartan from a longtime friend, Kevin Strnatka, who specialized in spray-on truck-bed coatings and was coating metal armor plates for Spartan.

Spartan’s founding owner, Jeremy Tepper, was a Border Patrol manager who started making durable shooting targets with tempered steel inhis Vail garage and selling them on eBay. He branched out into making armor plates and had them coated with Rhino Lining to help trap bullet and armor fragments.

Stmatka told Meeks that Tepper was thinking about selling the business because he was still working full-time for the Border Patrol and couldn’t keep up with orders.

Meeks and Stmatka ended up buying the company in September 2015 and set to work improving production, customer service and the website, widening its market from the survivalists and other individuals Tepper served to law enforcement agencies. Stmatka, initially a minority owner, is no longer an owner or involved with the company.

Since then, Spartan has expanded into a new 13,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and now employs 15 people, including 13 full-timers.

The company sells armor plates made of AR500 hardened steel, ceramic armor, soft armor made of layers of ballistic plastic fabric, along with vest-like plate carriers and other accessories, along with AR500 targets. Spartan also has developed its own spray-on plate coating, and has a patent pending for a curved plate design that hugs the body, Meeks said.

Nine of Spartan’s plate types are listed as certified as meeting industry-wide body-armor standards of the National Institute of Justice, including Level III- and IV-rated plates that resist high-powered rifle rounds.

Plate material, including a special kind of military-grade AR500 steel Y.-inch thick, is special-ordered and cut with a laser cutter by Desert Metal Works, nearly across the street from Spartan in an industrial park off West Grant Road.

The plates are formed, coated and, depending on the type, encased at Spartan’s shop before packaging and shipping. Armor vests are custom-made for the company by suppliers in China and the U.S., Meeks said.

Spartan sells direct online as well through a network of about 300 dealers, he said. Prices vary depending on armor type, but start at about $250 for a complete set of lower-level armor with vest.

While the Inc. 5000 listing and an accompanying Inc. Magazine story about Spartan and its origins in Tepper’s garage have been good exposure for the company, Meeks said he doesn’t expect to make the list next year.

After Spartan’s revenue jumped from $3.9 million in 2016 to $5.4 million last year, Meeks expects sales to grow to $6.5 million this year.

Law-enforcement agencies, prisons and other first responders now comprise about half of Spartan’s sales. Recent larger sales include a 1,000-piece sale to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department worth about $200,000, Meeks said.

The overall market for personal body armor is about $500 million annually in the U.S. alone, Meeks said.

But the company faces stiff competition from several players in the steel-core armor space, and Meeks recently has had to cope with a 25 percent increase in steel prices resulting from the Trump administration’s tariffs on China, he said.

“We’re pretty competitive on affordability, I think because we are the manufacturer,” Meeks said. “I think we’ve validated that over the years, our brand is kind of catching and our marketing is good, and we’re trying to build the brand around the highest-quality product we can at affordable prices.”

Spartan got a boost recently when it was approved to exhibit for the first time at the SHOT Show, a major trade show in Las Vegas in January.

But Meeks says he’s been careful not to chase orders so big that they outstrip his ability to scale up production.

“I don’t want to do anything that overextends the company,” he said. “There’s something to be said for smart growth.”

Seeking Solutions

MagnetMod owner Spencer Boerup, a 34-year-old Sabino High School graduate who attended the University of Arizona on a vocal-music scholarship, began working solo as a full-time wedding and portrait photographer in 2007.

But after about five years, Boerup said he began worrying that his photography business, though successful enough to provide a living, wouldn’t allow him to save enough for retirement.

In 2013, he hit upon the idea of creating an easy-to-use system to quickly add or swap out accessories such as diffusers and color filters on camera flashes, after struggling with existing systems using straps, hook-and-loop fasteners or tape.

“I was kind of my own target customer, in that I had used accessories and devices for my flashes, and I was always unhappy with them,” Boerup said.

“I said, what if they would just stick like a magnet?”,

Looking for a better way, he realized the small, powerful magnets he used to display photo prints in his office held the answer.

He came up with a system with a headpiece that attached to the flash with magnetic points that would accept various magnetic attachments. Unhappy with his rigid prototypes, Boerup got the idea to use soft silicone for the MagMod after watching his infant daughter suck on a pacifier that maintained its shape.

Boerup then researched the cost of producing the MagMods overseas and found a factory in China to produce them at a reasonable cost, though he was leery.

“I didn’t want to find a factory that would just knock it off and start producing it themselves, but I kind of just took a gamble,” he recalled.

After getting a lot of positive feedback from fellow photographers, Boerup launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in December 2013 to raise $35,000 in seed money.

The campaign reached its goal in just five hours.

About a year later, Boerup launched another Kickstarter campaign to introduce three new products and quickly raised another $902,000.

Today, MagMod employs 22 workers in Tucson and its line of flash-accessory systems, which include grids, diffusers and filters, are sold online at magnetmod.com, and through Amazon, major photo outlets including New York-based B&H Photo and a network of retailers across the U.S. and globally in 130 countries.

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