Vested Interests

War has been good for Pompano Beach's Point Blank Body Armor

"We have concerns with Point Blank," says David Goldenberg, legislative director for U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. "The congressman for a long time has had concerns about the quality of the product that has been coming out of the company and going to the troops overseas."

Point Blank Body Armor has profited handsomely from what the Brookings Institute describes as the most privatized war in U.S. history. Maybe that's what explains all the American flags.

Army Col. Ed Donnelly shows off the Interceptor body armor worn by Maj. David Delmonte.
Patricia Ryan
Army Col. Ed Donnelly shows off the Interceptor body armor worn by Maj. David Delmonte.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas models Point Blank's body armor.
Bruce Anderson
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas models Point Blank's body armor.

On Point Blank's catalogs and website, Old Glory is draped behind soldiers and the company's trademark: "Protecting America's Heroes." At the company headquarters in Pompano Beach, three flagpoles stand high above a plaque that reads: "These flagpoles erected and dedicated to the memory of America's fallen heroes by Point Blank Body Armor, Inc."

Before those heroes fell, however, there wasn't much to wave a flag about at Point Blank, which was once a struggling, New York-based manufacturer teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1995, another body-armor producer, DHB Industries, rescued the company from insolvency and moved its operation to a factory in Oakland Park. Sandra Hatfield, formerly vice president of a DHB division, Protective Apparel Corp. of America, was named president of Point Blank. Impressed that she was a female executive in a decidedly male-dominated industry, the South Florida Business Journal dubbed her a "steel magnolia" and quoted her as saying: "When am I going to be on the cover of Forbes?"

Hatfield had reason to be cocky. In 1999, only four years after DHB acquired the failing Point Blank, business was growing. The military, the FBI, and law-enforcement agencies nationwide were purchasing Point Blank's body armor, which consisted of a vest stitched around Kevlar, a stronger-than-steel Dupont fiber that, when wrapped over itself in sheets, creates a plate strong enough to stop a speeding bullet. Most of Point Blank's body armor sells for about $400 apiece.

In 1999, DHB Industries, whose Point Blank division accounts for most of its revenue, lost $22.3 million on $35.1 million in revenue. The next year, the company eked out a $5.7 million profit on $70 million in sales. Then came 9/11, and DHB/Point Blank's profits soared. In 2001 and 2002, thanks to several multimillion-dollar contracts from the Department of Defense, which was reacting to a well-publicized shortage of body armor in the military, the company earned $10.1 million and $16 million, respectively, on a combined $228.3 million in revenue.

"We believe the uptick in state, federal, and military spending on body armor is still in the early stages," CEO Brooks told investors on August 6, 2002. "The war on terrorism and a heightened focus on homeland security bode well for the business prospects at DHB."

One day later, Point Blank received yet another order from the military. This one, worth $9.2 million, required the company to manufacture body armor to be used by Army engineers charged with disposing of landmines.

But around the same time, a heated labor dispute exposed a policy at Point Blank that apparently put profits before quality.

Allegations that Point Blank Body Armor has sold defective or improperly sized body armor first came in 2002. That year, factory workers at the company's Oakland Park facility tried to form a labor union under the UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees) umbrella. The company's laborers, most of whom did not speak English and were paid at or close to minimum wage, claimed that they were forced to endure poor working conditions, which allegedly included a lack of drinking water in the facility in an effort to curb the frequency of restroom breaks.

On July 18, 2002, at 9:40 a.m., several employees left their workstations and marched toward management's offices to deliver union demands. As they walked to make their delivery, they chanted "¡Si, se puede!" or "Yes, we can!"

Seeing the demonstration, Hatfield immediately called 911. "It looked like a riot, and something was about to occur," Hatfield would later say in a deposition.

Leading the charge was a Haitian-American man named Sadius Isma. He handed over two documents, which included demands for better work conditions and benefits, to company officials. "It will get bad," Point Blank's chief operating officer, Ronda Graves, remembered Isma saying.

And it did. Although eventually successful, the effort to form a union resulted in three lawsuits filed in local and federal courts, including one in which Point Blank alleged that UNITE officials, in their bid to organize employees, defamed the company with claims of quality problems.

"Point Blank in our opinion was as difficult to deal with as any company we'd ever dealt with," remembers Harris Raynor, UNITE's vice president.

To defend itself against Point Blank's claims, attorneys for UNITE in November 2002 submitted to federal court more than 150 pages that alleged quality problems with Point Blank's body armor.

Among the documents was an April 2002 test by the New York Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau of body armor that Point Blank sold to the New York Police Department. The test of 1,000 vests found more than 900 to be defective. The safety bureau discovered that a number of vests were improperly sized, leaving an officer's abdomen exposed. Others did not perform as they should have, failing to stop bullets that they were designed to resist. In one example, the report stated, "The bullet went right through the protective panels. Had this been on the body of a police officer, the officer would have been either seriously injured or dead."

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