Maj. Gen. Augustus Collins of the Mississippi National Guard and LiteFighter founder Rich Coachys listen as an American Power Source, Inc., employee explains her role in producing a LiteFighter tent. The Columbus garment factory has produced close to 60,000 of the tents for the U.S. military during the past two years Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
January 17, 2015 10:34:08 PM
For Cathy Griffith and Rich Coachys, there is no sound more beautiful than the collective whir of 100-plus sewing machines.
For Griffith, it means a renaissance of a company that had fallen on lean times. For Coachys, it meant the fulfillment of a dream that seemed unlikely to ever get off the ground.
"This has been a life-saver for both of us," says Griffith, general manager of American Power Source, Inc., an apparel manufacturing plant located on the Southside of Columbus.
"We had just about run out of options," says Coachys, who, with two of his sons, founded LiteFighter, which specializes in one- and two-man tents marketed, at least for the time being, exclusively for the military.
Today, Griffith and her 115 employees produce 3,000 LiteFighter tents per month, which represents 75 percent of the factory's production. APS has produced almost 60,000 of the tents since it started its partnership with LiteFighter two years ago. Coachys said there are plans to expand into the commercial market this year.
The future is bright for both the entrepreneur and the company that has turned that vision into a reality.
A better mousetrap
The Coachys are a military family. Rich served in Vietnam while his sons, Mike and Bill, served in Iraq.
The idea for LiteFighter emerged not so much as an epiphany, but as the fruits of many conversations between the two Iraq War vets.
"When we talked about our experiences, we both agreed that there just wasn't an adequate shelter system, something that really met the needs of the soldier," Mike says. "What we had in mind was a tent system that could be set up as a tent on the ground or on a military cot. There was nothing like that in the military system at the time."
The brothers began to tinker with their own system.
"A lot of trips to the hardware store, making our own little version of what we thought would work. Just trial and error stuff," Mike says. "We would rig up our own contraptions, take it out in the field and see how it worked, then make adjustments. There were other tents out there, so we would sort of look at those to see how they were put together. Finally, after we gathered our facts, we took them to a tent design engineer -- yeah, there are people who do that -- and explained what we wanted."
What they envisioned was a versatile, light-weight, durable tent system superior to any other tent system available. After a decade of tinkering, the Coachys were satisfied with the concept. All they needed at that point was someone to manufacture the product.
How hard could that be, right?
Far harder than they imagined, as it turned out.
"It's interesting," Mike says. "Everybody thinks they can sew a tent, but if you look at all those pieces that go into it and the precision required -- you can't have a poorly-sewn seam when you're putting that tent in the hands of a soldier who could be deployed to some of the most remote, harsh climates in the world -- it's not nearly as easy as it seems."
For two years, the Coachys visited factory after factory.
"They all said, 'Sure, we can do that,'" Mike recalls. "And then they tried it and they couldn't."
Finally, the Coachys arrived in Columbus.
"Like everybody else, they said they could do the job," Mike remembers. "By then, we had learned not to put too much stock in that, of course. So we gave them the pattern. We said, 'Here, make this thing.'"
The next day, they had a prototype.
"We were amazed," Mike told The Dispatch. "We're still amazed at what they do."
American Power Source, Inc., was founded in 2001 in Alabama. Since its inception, the company has relied almost exclusively on providing clothing for the military.
At its heyday, the company operated factories in Fayette, Alabama, and Columbus (which opened in 2003) and employed 250 workers.
Relying so heavily on military contracts can be a precarious existence, though. By late 2012, the contracts the company had relied on had expired. The company closed its Fayette plant later that year.
A few months later, the Coachys arrived in Columbus, looking for a manufacturing partner. At the time, APS had dwindled to 20 employees.
While other manufacturers were either unwilling or unable to accept the challenge of making the Coachys' product, Griffith didn't blink.
"I think it's safe to say we were in a desperate situation," Griffith said. "I think both of us were. We were the 19th factory they had visited. They had been looking for someone to make the tents for two years before they came here."
At the time, APS' only contract involved making fitness apparel for the Army and the Marines.
"They had absolutely zero experience making tents," Mike Coachys said. "Setting up a whole new production line, that's not an easy thing to do."
Griffith said establishing the production process meant looking at things "backwards."
"The only way it made sense was to reverse engineer it," she says. "We started with finished product and, basically, took it apart stitch by stitch, component by component. That's how we figured out how to set up the production."
It was no small matter -- there are 257 separate components in a single tent.
"It took us about six months to really get the process going," Griffith said. "It took a lot of trial and error and, because this was something new, our workers had to learn the system. It was slow going at first, but now it's become second nature to us. We do 3,000 tents a month now and we can do more than that if the demand is there."
Since partnering with LiteFighter, the company has grown from 20 employees to 115.
"We're not back to where we were in the mid-2000s, but we're certainly not where we were two years ago, either," Griffith says. "It really has been a life-saver for us."
Although LiteFighter, whose headquarters is located in Conyers, Georgia, has been around for just two years, it is drawing rave reviews. On its website, the company has a page devoted to testimonials from officers and soldiers alike, all singing the praises of the tent system.
The fans include Maj. Gen. Augustus Collins, adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard. The MNG has purchased 3,760 LiteFighters and hopes to buy more, if the funding is available.
Colllins toured the Columbus facility last week to see how the tent systems are manufactured.
"It's impressive," Colllins said. "The thing that stuck me was the precision of the work. That's very important in the military, especially when you are talking about equipment used by soldiers when they are deployed. It has to be reliable. When zipper breaks or a seam comes loose out there, there's not much anybody can do about it."
Based on his experience with the LiteFighters, Collins said the system has another obvious advantage.
"With what we were using before, when you set up your tent, you had to grab a buddy to help you with it," Collins said. "But with these, a soldier can set up by himself in five minutes in the evening. In the morning, he can break it down in no time, pack it away and he's ready to go. It's a big improvement over what we've had in the past."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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