Back in November, Ricochet Manufacturing Co., makers of protective clothing for firefighters and other first responders since 1999, was down to 20 employees, the result of its largest customer stopping all orders for nine months. Now comes a potential $67.6 million deal with the Department of Defense that could help the Philadelphia company bounce back in dramatic fashion.
The expected $10 million to $15 million in orders a year for firefighting gear for the Air Force is triple Ricochet's current annual revenue, said Peter Askey, the company's president and owner, who plans to hire at least 30 sewing-machine operators to handle the new work.
The two contracts, which run through March 30, 2023 — one for a maximum of $44.5 million in structural garments, the other for as much as $23.1 million for proximity garments — are the "largest in the history of the company by a lot" and would be "three times the size of our biggest customer," Askey said.
"It's amazing for the people here," he said Thursday from the plant on Wissahickon Avenue in the city's Nicetown section. "To have some stability and to be recognized by the Air Force that our quality and our product are adequate for them, this feels great."
The win, following a bid submission in January with Ricochet's partner in the deal — ADS Inc., a Virginia Beach-based defense contractor specializing in logistics and supply-chain solutions — was a bit unexpected, Askey said. Even though the contracts were designated for small businesses, the federal government has defined those as companies with as many as 500 employees.
Ricochet's primary competition, Askey said, was Globe Manufacturing, a $100 million-plus safety-gear provider in New Hampshire that was purchased in July for $215 million by MSA Safety Inc. in Pittsburgh.
Based on the congratulatory calls and emails, "a lot of people in the industry were happy we won it instead of a big guy," Askey said.
In standard language for government work, the Defense Department gets a fixed price for the duration of the deal, which also does not guarantee the maximum purchase amounts. That has not dissuaded Askey, who has hired four sewing operators in the last week or two and plans to hire 30 more in groups of 10 over the next three months.
"We would hire them faster if they were available," he said, noting that Ricochet has received the first Air Force order for 50 sets of gear. Structural garments, for entering burning buildings, have an outer shell that is flame-resistant, with a moisture and thermal barrier inside to protect from heat and steam or chemicals that might splash. Proximity gear are silver suits, made of aluminized fabric.
Ricochet has a five-year, $750,000 low-interest loan from Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., issued in December, and will be seeking a line of working capital between $1 million and $2 million from a local bank to support the new contracts, Askey said.
With a resumption of orders from Ansell, its prior biggest customer, Ricochet's workforce is back up to 50, about where it was a few years ago, said Askey, who bought the company in 2011 from the Reinvestment Fund.
The fund had assumed ownership after investing about $2.5 million to move the company from Massachusetts to Philadelphia in 2004, said Askey, who had worked at the Reinvestment Fund and Berwind Group.