Body armor company files for bankruptcy, founder reclaims helm

CENTRAL LAKE – Richard Davis is used to being a target. He's shot himself about 200 times, testing out his company's bullet-proof vests.

"The joke around here is I've been shot at more times than anyone in the world with the possible exception of Jimmy Hoffa, but of course, we're not entirely sure," Davis joked, referring to the labor leaders' mysterious death.

But the latest attack against him isn't a joke and it isn't coming from the barrel of a revolver; it's coming from a legion of lawyers and attorney generals.

At least 10 class-action lawsuits have been filed against Davis' company, Second Chance Body Armor, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of concealable soft body armor, based in Central Lake.

The lawsuits claim Second Chance knowingly sold law enforcement agencies faulty vests.

Davis is offended by the charges.

For 33 years, he's made saving lives his mission. He started Second Chance after being shot while delivering pizzas in Detroit. He developed a soft, concealable vest that was strong enough to resist bullets, but comfortable enough to wear 24-7.

According to Davis, every 11 days an American police officer dies who would have been saved if he/she had been wearing body armor. So comfort is crucial in design.

By 1998, the company had developed its lightest vest, the Ultima, made of 100-percent Zylon, a synthetic fiber. Within three years, the vest accounted for more than 50 percent of company sales, said Davis.

Then word spread that Zylon wasn't holding up to industry standards. Second Chance began testing the vests in 2001. They pulled more than 100 vests from officers in the field. Davis said the results "weren't bad," and the degradation rate was about three percent, which is average.

But a second round of tests in 2003 did raise concerns. Results showed Zylon was unreliable; some vest broke down after three years, others within six months.

"We found this out and I said, 'Oh my God, this is going to be hell,' but we basically blew the entire net worth of the company to correct the problem," Davis said.

The company recalled 130,000 Zylon vests in September of 2003.

Davis blames Toyobo Corp, the maker of Zylon thread. He said the Japanese company knew the material was going bad, but lied about it.

Toyobo claims Zylon works well in body armor that's properly constructed, according to information posted on the company web site.

"Bogus," said Davis, adding the company's Kevlar vests are stitched together similarly and have not had the same deterioration rates or problems.

"Second Chance found a problem, not of their making, corrected a problem, not of their making, at their own expense."

And those expenses have been costly, not only in dollars but in personnel. Davis estimates the company has spent $4 million on legal fees and was forced to lay off 56 workers in October. Company president Paul Banducci also stepped down that month amidst mounting legal problems.

Davis reclaimed the title of president and CEO. Last summer, he had stepped down from the position, but remained as chairman of the board.

The layoffs have hurt the small community of Central Lake, but they've also hurt Davis, who still lives in the area.

"Here I'm laying off single mothers who have house payments and car payments, and these lawyers are flying in on their private jets. That's absolutely disgusting to me."

Davis said he won't take a salary until all 56 workers return to work.

Realizing the company was in serious financial ruin if it kept spending up to $50,000 a week on litigation costs, Davis and his team filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late October.

"It's sort of like dipping [the lawsuits] in liquid nitrogen. It just kind of freezes everything," he said, and allows him to run the company again.

"At one point, I felt like a criminal sneaking away to do research," he added.

Now that some of the pressure is off Davis' shoulders, he can focus on future projects, such as a groin protector, and continue to market the company's popular Kevlar vests.

Second Chance has recorded 940 saves; people who are alive today because they wore a Second Chance vest.

How will Davis celebrate the milestone 1,000th save?

"What do you do? We saved the guy's life. How do you top that? Give him a date with Miss America, if he's single," he joked. "I'll go out and save 1,001 because I'm sure that guy thinks his life is just as important as 1,000 or 999. I'll just keep on working."

Davis said he hopes the handful of class-action lawsuits filed against his company will consolidate into one lawsuit, which he then expects to settle and move forward.

Second Chance is the nation's largest manufacturer of concealable soft body armor for law enforcement officers. It employs about 500 workers worldwide, 250 in Central Lake. The company also has facilities in Alabama, Massachusetts, England and Morocco. Richard Davis and Karen McCraney own about two-thirds of the company.