Gearing up: BlackHawk expands into new headquarters

Much of Blackhawk's growth has been fueled by homeland security demands since Sept. 11, 2001

The Virginian-Pilot
NORFOLK, Va. — The four-story office building rises from the ground like a fortress, with two stone pillars resembling a military battlement and an arched roof bringing to mind a parachute canopy.

For Mike Noell, a former Navy SEAL, the structure symbolizes a rock-solid military positioning. The muscular architecture also makes a statement about the strength of Noell's company, BlackHawk Products Group.

Located off Miller Store Road across from Norfolk International Airport, the roughly $12 million, 64,000-square-foot building is the new corporate headquarters for BlackHawk, a maker and supplier of tactical gear for the military and law enforcement.

Noell, BlackHawk's president and chief executive officer, said the rapidly expanding company has outgrown its current headquarters in Norfolk Industrial Park.

"We're victims of our own success," Noell said. "We've got people in three double-wide trailers outside, and we had nowhere to grow. This is a need expansion as well as planned growth."

Last month, the company announced it will open a production facility in Boise, Idaho, its fourth new U.S. factory since 2003. The plant, in nearly 100,000 square feet of leased space, will focus on developing BlackHawk's brand of body armor, nylon holsters and products for high-end hunters and sportsmen.

BlackHawk plans to move into its new Norfolk headquarters in early July. It is in the company's Commander Corporate Center, an 11-acre parcel the company purchased from the city about two years ago for $1.32 million.

The site is within a federal HUBZone - or historically underutilized business zone - that offers advantages to companies that supply goods to the federal government, said Rod Woolard, director of the city's Department of Development. BlackHawk hopes to develop a second building on the site that it would lease out.

Noell's third-floor corner office overlooks a hole on the Lake Wright Golf Course. The building will feature a bistro, a gym and space for about 300 employees - about triple its current corporate staff.

Noell, who started the company 14 years ago from a backyard garage, said the company could reach those employment numbers within the next five to seven years. BlackHawk plans to build an adjacent 84,000-square-foot office building to lease to other businesses - and eventually provide BlackHawk room to grow, Noell said.

Much of that growth has been fueled by homeland security demands since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nationwide, the wholesale market for protective gear worn by soldiers and public safety workers hit nearly $2.3 billion in 2005, and steady growth is expected, said analyst Anna Crull, a consultant for BCC Research, a Wellesley, Mass., firm that tracks the market.

"BlackHawk makes some very nice knives, holsters and belts, and they seem to have a really good distribution system," Crull said.

The demand for such gear also has boosted the fortunes of a locally based BlackHawk competitor.

Six months ago, London Bridge Trading Co. Ltd. of Virginia Beach moved into a new 70,000-square-foot production facility, where it makes sewn nylon products such as ballistic vests, holsters and backpacks for military and federal government customers, chief executive Doug McDougal said.

McDougal also attributed the growth to the government's stepped-up anti-terrorism efforts and the ongoing expansion of military special operations.

Noell declined to disclose sales figures for the privately held BlackHawk, but there's evidence of exponential growth. One measure: Defense Department contracts awarded to BlackHawk went from one worth $44,800 in 2001 to 46 valued at $2.1 million in 2006, according to government, a Web site that tracks federal contracts.

Tom White, BlackHawk's vice president of marketing, said those contracts offer only a "snapshot" of its Pentagon business, since the Defense Department buys many BlackHawk products from dealers.

Since 2003, BlackHawk has put more emphasis on research and development of high-tech gear, and also has introduced a line of apparel known as Warrior Wear that includes such items as socks and fleece jackets.

"The goal is to be able to outfit the military and law enforcement from head to toe," Noell said .

The company has acquired several smaller firms that have spun off new product lines. A Southport, N.C., facility, for example, makes entry rams and hardened deadbolt cutters that the company markets to police SWAT teams.

BlackHawk's purchase of two design and engineering firms in 2004 led to opening a Boseman, Mont., factory that does injection-molded tooling and has sparked such high-tech gear as a tactical strobe flashlight controlled by computer chips. The company also operates a Post Falls, Idaho, factory that makes apparel.

Nationwide, the company has about 270 employees and should approach 400 in another year, Noell said.

Some of its manufacturing work - mainly apparel sold on the commercial market - has been outsourced to foreign-owned factories, including in China, Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Mexico and, soon, Honduras. "It's a global economy; therefore, we look at global sourcing," Noell said.

In Norfolk, the company's new headquarters is near the Norfolk Police Department's K-9 Corps and Firearms Training Center - known as Guns and Dogs. On a day last week, the rapid "pop -pop -pop " of semi-automatic weapons echoed nearby.

Woolard said Norfolk officials laughed when Noell, early on in the project, said, "We may be the one company that really likes being next to barking dogs and gun fire."

To Noell, it's the sound of business.

"We do a lot of research and development with law enforcement, so having the Norfolk police here is really good," Noell said. "We can go to them with a new product and say, 'Hey, look at this and tell us what you think.'"

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