More than 20 years ago, volunteer Woodbury firefighter and emergency medical technician Bob Koppes thought roadside emergency personnel needed more and better reflective material to protect themselves from speeding traffic and to be seen by other colleagues.
Koppes also was a 3M chemical engineer in the sandpaper business. For years, 3M had sold reflective material for signs. Koppes learned that there was a much smaller market for garments worn by first responders, industrial workers, ski patrol members, and joggers. They need to be illuminated in the dark.
A 3M safety division executive said that market was probably too small for the company to pursue aggressively. But it might make a nice small business.
“The shoe companies were just starting to put reflectives on running shoes and backpacks,” Koppes recalled. “I wrote a business plan, quit 3M and rented a 5,000-square-foot building. It was just me at first. I didn’t take a salary for several years. But once I got going, I was so busy that I never looked back. And the business has really hit its pace over the last four years.”
Today, Oakdale-based Safe Reflections employs 50, plus 30 on-call workers, and is the single-largest converter of 3M Scotchlite reflective material. Safe Reflections enhances the material with its own technology and processes to produce customized, multiple-color reflective trim, logos and other reflective material for use on apparel and footwear for the U.S. military; uniform companies such as Cintas and G&K Services; the energy, mining and construction industries; and shoe and sportswear manufacturers such as Patagonia, Brooks, Adidas and New Balance.
A $360 Harley-Davidson leather jacket contains 240 square inches of Safe Reflections reflective that can be spotted in the headlights a mile away, said Safe Reflections President Chuck Gruber.
“We supply 140 factories that manufacture for sportswear companies in Asia,” Gruber said. “Our sales are up about 20 percent this year over last year.’’
Gruber, 55, is a chemical engineer who had worked in production, marketing and management at larger companies. Koppes recruited him in 2012 to take Safe Reflections to the next level of sales. Koppes remains chairman and owner.
Gruber said he was stunned in his job interview by the “colorized reflective material” that Koppes and a company researcher invented in 2009 that has proved the latest business driver.
Within a year of Gruber’s arrival, the U.S. Patent Office granted a patent for Safe Reflections’ “Brilliant Color Reflective” that has replaced a lot of standard “silver piping” with bright, washable colors on shoes and clothing. It adds colorful style by day and reflects back brightly at night.
The basic process for making 3M reflective material starts with microscopic, hair-thin pieces of glass that is coated with liquid aluminum and fused through a boiling process. The cured combination results in a high-intensity reflection when struck with light.
Koppes said the secret sauce is in the “Brilliant” reflective, which allows for stylish colors without muting reflectivity at night.
“Nobody else in the world can do that,” Koppes asserted, although competitors are trying. “The chemistry and the process are unique. In Asia, it’s either … low ‘candle power’ or low color. People want bright, consistent color. And we can produce that color and brightness consistently across color lines.”
Other than two competitors that must be U.S. based to supply reflective material to the military, virtually all of Gruber’s competition is in Asia. Safe Reflections also supplies 140 sportswear manufacturing plants, mostly in Asian countries. But the reflective materials are processed in Oakdale. The company has a sales office in Taiwan and may add a “finishing plant” somewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.
Gruber and Koppes said their commitment to next-generation products, technology and a sophisticated workforce allows them to continue making product at the expanding Oakdale plant.
“Our 50 people here would be hundreds at a plant in China,” Gruber said. “In Vietnam they use people with toothpicks to ‘weed’ material around the reflective letters. We use automated lasers and other technology that has eliminated much of that work. We’re just more productive.”
Safe Reflections has doubled its production space with a 39,000-square-foot manufacturing addition and plans to invest $1 million in equipment.
Sales are expected to rise by around 20 percent this year to something under $30 million. Gruber said the company expects to hit $40 million by 2017.
Safe Reflections, which is hiring, operates two shifts daily. It pays production workers $12-to-$23 per hour, plus benefits, a 401(k) match, and profit-sharing that averaged $1,500 last year.
Things are not going as well for Koppes as for the company. He is battling cancer and is weak from months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“I could have a year and a half, or 10 years to live,” he said. “Nobody knows. You deal with what life hands you.”
And he takes great pride in what his one-employee company of 20 years ago has become.
“I’m very pleased,” Koppes said. “I always hired people smarter than me. I’m not a manager. I’m an entrepreneur and inventor of products.
“I had a person before Chuck who drove the sales from $3 million to $15 million. Chuck has the ability to take it to $40 million or $50 million. I try to hire people and pay them the right amount of money, including some of the profits … including the workers on the floor. You cannot be successful without the dedication of all the people.”