June 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

Vested interest: a local entry into the bulletproof market

Tom Nardone of Birmingham favors power tools and flames when he carves pumpkins. He's written two books about the craft. (Tom Nardone)

Tom Nardone’s bulletproof vest business didn’t start with a joke, exactly. And it didn’t exactly start with a search for Chinese food in Las Vegas.

Both of those things helped, no question. But the BulletSafe vest came about because Nardone is a thoughtful, analytical, and quite possibly brilliant guy — and because the world only needs so many nose-hair clippers.

Operating from an office park in Troy, his PriveCo Inc. sells millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise online every year, much of it peculiar.

Step gingerly into priveco.com and you’ll find websites devoted to bachelorette parties, adult toys, Rogaine, back shavers and most anything else you might not like your mother-in-law to spot in your shopping cart.

Now there’s also BulletSafe.com, bringing inexpensive bulletproof vests to the masses.

If that sounds like a sign of the times — yet another school shooting erupted last week, in Seattle — it’s not the sign you’re thinking of.

Nardone, 44, doesn’t expect to see throngs of civilians going about their business in his vests.

They’re welcome to, of course, and in the exit survey on the website, the third-most-popular reason for purchase is “I’m preparing for the worst.”

But as a retailer, he finds that distributors are of increasingly less use to manufacturers. They’re eliminating the middleman, essentially, and as a forward thinker, he wanted to find something to make.

The average guy might not have come up with bulletproof vests, but the average guy doesn’t attack pumpkins with chainsaws.

Rocket maker, mow leader

Nardone is best known for things that have nothing to do with business.

Around his neighborhood in Birmingham, he’s the guy who built a 12-foot-tall blue metal rocket ship as a playhouse for his kids.

In Detroit, he’s the leader of the Mower Gang, a ruly mob of volunteers who buff and trim downtrodden parks and playgrounds. And on various national television shows every October, he’s the artist who gets spattered with pumpkin guts as he carves jack-o-lanterns with power tools.

Before all that, he blew through Boston University in three years and took a job as an engineer with a helicopter company, where he handled ballistics testing when high-density polyethylene was replacing the pricier Kevlar as the preferred bullet deflector for fuel tanks.

“I worked on windmills, too,” he says, “but you don’t see me in the windmill industry,” possibly because he didn’t stumble across a windmill store at a Chinatown strip mall in the desert.

The incongruous site of a body armor shop next to a tofu stand came five years ago. A while after that, at a dinner party, he was talking to someone involved with the new Meijer shopping center at the state fairgrounds in Detroit.

All the large storefronts had been leased, the man said, but they’d hadn’t even taken a phone call about the smaller spaces near the street.

“I know what you can put in there. A bulletproof vest store,” Nardone said, and everyone laughed. But then, as he’s prone to do, he started thinking.

Jobs available

Nardone is a research and spreadsheets guy, and what the numbers told him about bulletproof vests is that they’re expensive.

“You buy the name brands, custom-fitted, they start at $600 and go to $1,000 or more,” says Carl Douglass, who used to work in law enforcement supply and now manages Harry’s Army Surplus in Dearborn.

BulletSafe comes from a factory in China in five simple sizes, small to double-X, and any color you want as long as it’s black. Harry’s sells two to six per week, and Nardone says it’s become the top retailer in a growing network of surplus stores and shooting ranges.

His target market is security guards, working stiffs who maybe earn half as much as a cop and never have their vests partially subsidized by federal grants.

Bail bondsmen, pawnbrokers, bounty hunters and armored car drivers have also bought in.

To Nardone’s surprise, more vests have sold at stores than online. Buyers want to heft them — they range from 5.2 to 6.4 pounds, depending on size — and try them on.

It took four years for PriveCo to reach $1 million in annual sales. BulletSafe launched in August, and it’s almost there already.

What that means is unclear. It could be Nardone simply designed a better mousetrap, had a grand time test-firing bullets at it, and found an unfulfilled market.

Or it could be the populace is more worried than it used to be.

All Nardone knows for sure is that business is good, and he needs a salesperson or two to work the phones. Email him at tom@priveco.com.

It’s $10 an hour, plus commission, in a growth industry. Aim for the stars.

(313) 222-1874

Tom Nardone's son, Michael, 9, is almost big enough to fit a BulletSafe ... (Tom Nardone)
Tom Nardone is the leader of the Mower Gang, volunteers who buff and trim ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)