POCOMOKE — When Hardwire LLC founder George Tunis watches tragic events on the evening news, his hearts sinks like everyone else’s, but his mind goes right to work. Horrific events in our often violent world have inspired Tunis to develop products that have saved countless lives and may end up saving countless more. Hardwire’s massive manufacturing facility sits on the banks of the Pocomoke River in southern Worcester County and is the home base for the growing defense company that creates armor for everything from the military Hum-V’s on the front lines of war in the Middle East to the bulletproof whiteboards found in classrooms all over the globe.
Yet, for a guy who spends a lot of time dealing with classified information and projects, Tunis opened up to The Dispatch in a rare sit down about how homegrown innovation could help put a stop to some of the senseless violence we see in our world.
Q: Much has been said about the fact that a company like yours has become a staple of the southern end of Worcester County (in Pocomoke). Hardwire is making products that impact people’s lives all over the world, but you are based here. But when you are making products that people want globally, I know there’s a lot of travel involved. Tell me about your past few weeks.
A: We’ve been on the road constantly, and I think that it’s part of what is unique about our business. It is global in reach, but we do an awful lot here in the United States. Here in the Worcester County, we are close enough to Washington DC and some of the commands we deal with, the Pentagon in particular. But, the best part about Worcester County is coming home. It’s about being on the road and being in these little hotel rooms and driving up and down the coast, or being in New York City and getting exposure in front of all these folks, but then being able to come back to one of the most beautiful places to live on the planet. Literally, we are a few thousand yards from Assateague Island right now and the National Park that is just so beautiful. So, to be able to jump on a paddleboard and go paddle around at sunset after work, those are the gems of the country.
Q: Some people may think, ‘why would a company that has this sort of focus be based here, but I think you just answered that question.
A: And part of it is, why not? One of our things is that, with the Internet and with communication technology today, it doesn’t really matter where you are. In a global economy, everybody at some point is going to be far away. So, the great thing about being on the Eastern Shore is part of the magic about the downtime.
Without downtime, you are never going to have the great ideas that give you the global reach. It is about the families who live here, the community and the inspiration. We find inspiration walking along Assateague looking at horseshoe crabs and you are like, ‘wow, these guys have been around for a long time, and they have some pretty effective armor, and pretty effective articulated joints on a horseshoe crab if you look closely.’ So, if you look at all these natural examples and you start to think that could apply to a guy’s body armor and help him move.
Q: So, you are telling me that horseshoe crabs inspired, even indirectly, some of the body armor that is designed at Hardwire?
A: Yeah, we were flipping them over last weekend and looking at exactly how they were articulated on both sides. Our whole business is dependent on waves. Being a surfer and looking at some of the complex wave patterns right off of our Inlet on Assateague, we look at those wave interactions and we think they don’t really add up, but they do. When you get into body armor or the underbellies of vehicles, you realize these are all pressure waves that are very much like ocean waves. They reflect off each other and refract off each other. They constructively interfere. It’s no different than watching a wave hit the bulkhead.
So, as we see boats move or we surf or watch the backwash coming off the beach, those are all things or phenomenon that we see in blast events. They happen at a higher rate of speed, but with today’s camera technology, we can slow it down and it becomes surprisingly the same.
Q: When people think of Hardwire, many think about body armor or the protection of the underbelly of Hum-V’s that were used during American wars overseas. Others point to the ballistic whiteboards that you created after the tragedy at Sandyhook elementary. But, if you had to give an elevator pitch about what your company does to people who may only know that you are a growing company that exists on the southern end of Worcester County, what would that elevator pitch be?
A: We’re about protecting and increasing the survivability of human beings. We chose the word human being very carefully because it flowed from the emotion of our company. We don’t care if you are a police officer, or a soldier, or a kid or a teacher, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, we are all human beings. If we can enhance that survivability, that’s a big deal. But, then you ask what is survivability? Well, we treat it a lot like fire. Fire ranges from a match to a raging forest fire to everything in between. Fire extinguishers don’t come in one shape or size. You have sprinkler systems and little fire extinguishers and big fire companies with hoses, so when you think of the military down to the school teacher in that same analogy, we believe in ‘armor everything’. Everything can become armor, and everything can become defensive.
If you look at the scale of violence on a global or a national level, it’s not decreasing right now. In fact, it’s actually increasing. All of it is aimed at the offensive side. It tends to be, ‘we’ll just add more guns and bullets to this equation and it’s going to magically fix it.’ As a person who has always been fascinated with math, and our whole staff is this way, we think, ‘well, let’s just add a minus sign.’ Armor is not going to mistakenly kill anyone, and it’s not going to do anything other than defend or subtract bullets from the equation. If you say, I’m going to put a minus sign in front of this bullet or projectile or this blast. I’m going to do that, and whether or not that was a good guy or a bad guy, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we had some time to make a more rational decision.
These things happen at lightning speed. Whether that’s a school shooting or a defensive measure by the police, or maybe a mistake by the police. We want to buy everybody time to think more clearly and that can be anywhere from one to 10 seconds and that’s an eternity in a situation like that. We learned that from the military: Buy time, assess the situation, defend yourself, and if you have to take offensive action, it’s pretty clear what you need to do.
Q: People watch things on the news, and as you mentioned, they see the fact that awful things are seemingly intensifying. School shootings, terrorist acts, violence against police officers, violence involving police officials and unarmed citizens, etc. Many people watch these events and think, ‘I wish I could do something.’ For a guy like you, who would assumedly have those same feelings, you own a company that can actually instill real change. So when a Sandyhook happens, or a nightclub shooting happens, do you feel a responsibility to develop a product that could help stop the next one?
A: That’s our entire inspiration. We’ve always said, ‘don’t fall in love with your technology, fall in love with your customer.’ Our customers are those people in need. We have very unique technology coming out of the war effort that is so much lighter than most people can even conceive. We have body armor that weighs less than the average sweater. It’s comfortable for folks to wear. So, you see these things happen, like the Sandyhook shooting, which inspired the (bulletproof) whiteboards, we thought we have to get armor into schools in a way that is unobtrusive to the kids. Now, that’s spread across the world, and we sell those whiteboards worldwide. After Paris, we saw that coming. We do talk to a lot of military folks who say that the enemy is very sophisticated, but they are different. We aren’t going to see another massive bombing on Pearl Harbor again because the defenses are there. But, we are going to see a sophisticated enemy using the most current tools like the internet to recruit lone wolves to go and do things that are very unpredictable. So, when Paris happened, we knew right away, like when we saw an IED in Iraq for the first time. The enemy had figured out that these were effective ways to fight an insurgent war. Paris was too easy and too unprotected, so we immediately began to develop a pilot program locally right inside Seacrets.
Q: Yes, essentially what you did was create a hybrid of the bulletproof whiteboards and you put them in the hands of bouncers at Seacrets to protect them from similar situations like what happened at the nightclub in Paris.
A: In that case, instead of a whiteboard, it takes on the form of advertising, so again, it has that dual functionality where it can be an effective part of the beautiful bar that is Seacrets that is full of all those knick-knacks that make it so special. So, to be able to fit into that, or an art museum, or some other venue, and just sort of cloak the armor in a way that is non-threatening, we see it working that way.
I think the big change for me, after Paris, was this is not something we have to hide anymore, it’s something we need to do. Fire extinguishers are red and they are prominently displayed and no one is threatened by them. You see them throughout stadiums and bars and they are red because when things go wrong you want to be able to identify them quickly. It’s not the end of the world, it’s probably going to happen again, but we can’t just sit idly by, we can use science and technology to kind of invent our way out of this problem, and at the very least, make it a whole lot more difficult for the bad guys.
I happen to be a part of very smart people that we see these things happen, they are just as upsetting to us. They are very emotional and we can take that emotion and turn it into ‘how do we solve the problem.’ As engineers, that’s what we are trained to do: go to the root of the problem, and while you may not be able to solve the whole problem, you can maybe begin to solve it, and maybe take the sharp edge of what’s going on. That’s what I think our company does really well.
Q: Politically speaking, there’s always the conversation about the desire to bring more manufacturing jobs and companies like yours to the Eastern Shore, so we aren’t so much a “two-horse” type of region (tourism and agriculture). It’s important not only to the creation of jobs on the front end, but it also helps to keep talented kids here in our region as well. I know that working with kids and developing the STEM focused talent of tomorrow is a big passion of yours. Tell me where we are as far developing that talent and the hurdles we still face in keeping those kids here?
A: I think you hit it with the mention of tourism and agriculture. What’s the one commonality in those two things? They really do well when the sun is shining and it’s nice and bright outside, but all winter long, it gets a little rough in our particular climate to make things tick. The beautiful thing about manufacturing is that it’s a 365-day-a-year enterprise. Tourism people are spending money that they made. Hopefully in our economy, somebody has actually made something and it wasn’t just imported from China. So, having manufacturing anywhere in the United States is key to our economic survival long-term.
Down here on the shore, I think what manufacturing brings is stability. It creates the shock absorber to the economy that normally is so up and down. We are more based on a global economy which is season-less. We don’t have the cheapest labor in the world. In fact, I pride myself and our company in having better paying jobs because one man with a good brain can do the work of 20 not-so-bright-guys without good brains. It’s really about the brain power, and I think the Eastern Shore is rich with brain power.
(To listen to the entire conversation, click over to The Dispatch Download podcast at http://mdcoastdispatch.com/d3-podcasts/qa-with-hardwire-owner-george-tunis/)