Still, it is unusual when a company with an established business finds an enormous new market for its products. Yet privately held Rhino Linings has done just that - by using its tough polymer materials to help protect U.S. troops in Iraq and elsewhere.
Now the same resilient polymer coating that helps protect truck beds from scratches and dings is going to war:
- Spraying Rhino Linings' proprietary coatings on Humvees and other military vehicles has helped protect them against small-arms fire and roadside bombs.
- Applying the coating to ceramic plates used in bulletproof vests helps the body armor withstand direct hits from small-arms fire.
- Spraying the polyurethane on masonry walls of buildings helps prevent debris or concrete blocks from disintegrating into deadly flying fragments in a bomb blast.
"We're going to solve a whole lot of problems for the military this year," said Lewis, 47, whose company has about $200 million a year in sales.
"We've gone from saving pickup boxes to saving lives," added Pierre Gagnon, who was named as Rhino Linings' president in January so Lewis could spend more time expanding the business into new markets. Lewis said he was working in the import-export business in the late 1980s when he saw an opportunity to use polyurethane polymers to coat the cargo beds of pickup trucks.
The coating, from one-eighth-inch to one-quarter-inch thick, is a durable, nonskid sealant that resists scrapes and scratches. The coating is waterproof, which helps prevent corrosion. Similar compounds are used to make skateboard wheels, shopping carts and the soles of running shoes because polyurethanes are so resistant to impacts and abrasions, Lewis said.
Lewis founded Rhino Linings in San Diego because he saw the biggest market potential in the United States, where far more pickup trucks are sold than in Europe. And as a former South African, naming the new business was obvious.
"Rhinos are prehistoric," Lewis said. "They're so ugly, they're beautiful- and really, what could be a better fit?" At the time, Lewis knew the protective specialty coating was a boon for construction and mining equipment and would provide a waterproof nonskid surface for the decks of boats and docks. But the demand for spray-on coatings for pickups proved to be nearly insatiable.
"I got stuck in that business because it grew so fast," Lewis said. "We went from sales of $1 million (a year) to $100 million in 10 years."
Lewis said he invested everything he had to get the company started. He was able to fund Rhino Linings' growth from profits. The company began exploring the use of its coatings on military vehicles more than a decade ago at the request of Israeli military officials, Lewis said. Demand from military customers took off after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
After Iraqi insurgents began targeting U.S. fuel tankers in 2004, the company formulated a proprietary coating for the tankers that forms a self-sealing membrane. The elastic membrane seals bullet holes from small-arms fire, which helps prevent hazardous fuel leaks in the same way a self-sealing tire prevents flats.
At its headquarters, Rhino Linings has even been developing bulletproof "windows" of clear polyurethane as an alternative to hardened acrylic and laminated glass windows. Gagnon said military customers represent about 10 percent of Rhino Linings' business, up from only about 1 percent just five years ago.
Aftermarket automotive applications, such as spraying pickup truck beds, accounts for 70 percent of the company's business, and various industrial applications represent 20 percent.
In late July, for example, workers sprayed Rhino coatings on cooling towers and other rooftop equipment at a nearby hospital.
Lewis said Rhino's coatings also have been used in unusual applications at SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. Rhino's coatings also have been sprayed over containment basins surrounding fertilizer, chemical and petroleum storage sites.
The material is sprayed with a nozzle that mixes two chemical compounds, which react instantly to form the polyurethane coating. The mixture dries within a few seconds.
The company generates revenue chiefly by selling its chemical products to 1,400 licensed dealers who operate independent businesses. About 70 percent of those are in the United States. As a private company, Rhino Linings does not disclose more detailed financial results. It employs 100 people in the United States, mostly in San Diego, and has 50 employees in offices around the world.
"The pickup truck bed lining business is a good business, but it totally depends on the sale of pickup trucks," said Rahul Ganju, an automotive and transportation analyst with Frost & Sullivan, the market research firm. "In 2006, we are predicting that sales of pickup trucks will go down."
While Rhino Linings has almost one-third of the market, Ganju said a competitor, Line-X of Santa Ana, Calif., ranks close as the second-biggest supplier of spray-on specialty coatings. Like Rhino Linings, Line-X also has seen strong growth among military customers.
In recent weeks, for example, Line-X workers have been spraying polyurethane inside the outer walls of the Pentagon. Field tests have shown the coating helps protect occupants inside masonry buildings because it forms an elastic membrane that keeps bombs from blasting block walls into fragments.
In one test conducted by Line-X, 200 pounds of TNT exploded 30 feet from a structure that featured two conventional block walls, with one coated with a Line-X polyurethane. The untreated wall was destroyed, and block fragments dismembered a dummy seated behind a desk behind the wall. The blast did not penetrate the coated wall. Because the application process uses no solvents or volatile compounds, "I can spray in the Pentagon while it's occupied because there are no environmental issues associated with it," Line-X Chief Executive Scott Jewett said.
Both companies hope to win more business by spraying their coatings inside buildings used by American personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq and in other trouble spots around the world.