Finding a Niche in Creating Secure Structures

NEW MADRID, Mo. (AP) - In a low-sitting building across the street from cotton fields in southeast Missouri, a company that once questioned its ability to survive has found a second life as a homeland security business.

Kontek Industries Inc. opened in 1986, making shelters to protect equipment needed near phone transmission towers. But when the Internet bubble burst - hobbling related businesses - Kontek saw $16 million of $18 million in booked orders evaporate in 2001, said chairman Charles Merrill. It scrambled to stay afloat.

Realizing it needed to adapt to survive, Kontek took its experience constructing small, strong buildings and altered the business to make concrete barriers, guard shelters and troop housing needed in a post-Sept. 11th world.

"I would love to say it was terrific smarts, but survival is a human instinct," Merrill said. "We had knowledge in concrete and steel fabrication, and we thought there would be an interest in security that was different from cameras and fences."

While employees worked on a guard shelter that was bound for Whiteman Air Force Base at Kontek's 160,000 square-foot plant, Merrill showed off some of the business' latest designs earlier this week.

One was a steel shipping container modified to serve as troop housing, available with a roof that can stand up to mortars and walls that withstand bullets. It's outfitted with fold-up beds that hang from a wall, lighting and outlets, a closet, gun rack and an air conditioner. Kontek has not yet sold its new troop housing, but Merrill said the business is in talks about possible sales.

Other Kontek creations are already in use, like its massive 10,000 pound barriers, which are huge rectangles made of concrete and steel. Since 2001, the company has sold its barriers to places such as U.S. Air Force locations, 12 nuclear facilities and two national security sites, the Lawrence Livermore and Sandia laboratories.

Last month, the Springfield, Va.-based Armed Forces Journal, a defense trade publication, asked Kontek for a product demonstration at an event highlighting advances in weaponry and protection at the Blackwater Training Center in North Carolina.

John Roos, the journal's editor, said the bullets used did not penetrate Kontek's guard shelter design. "It certainly works as advertised," he said. But, he said a possible drawback to the shelters would be moving them quickly due to their heavy weight. "The problem with steel, of course, is transporting it," he said.

He thought Kontek's designs could prove useful to create secure operating rooms, generating stations or military checkpoints in a war zone.

Merrill said Kontek, with its plant in rural Missouri, could be perceived as a mouse that's trying to roar.

But he pointed out that the University of Missouri has researchers on its Rolla and Columbia campuses doing research into blast design. Kontek and the university received a $2.4 million federal grant to work on blast-resistant barriers in the 2005 fiscal year.

U.S. Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson has been instrumental in helping Kontek, which is located in her district, identify opportunities and navigate federal guidelines. She also credited Republican Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent for their efforts to help secure the federal grant.

Emerson said small businesses like Kontek can be overlooked because they can have trouble identifying opportunities, but once they prove themselves, they can be as good as or better than many large competitors.

"I don't think anyone can predict how successful Kontek might ultimately be, but I've been impressed with the company's tenacity and innovation," she said through e-mail as she traveled through Europe on a NATO trip with a Congressional delegation.


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