Santa Ana / Tustin, California
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Arc and flame resistant clothing
CEO John O'Sullivan melds form and function in a line of stylish flame-resistant workwear.
Within the energy industry, workers need clothing that protects them from arc flashes and momentary flash fires.
O'Sullivan knew from experience that this type of apparel is typically bulky, uncomfortable, and lacking in style. So he collaborated with his fashion designer wife, Erin, and started Benchmark FR to manufacture something better.
The company's industrial apparel is compliant within a variety of OSHA, NESC, NFPA, and ASTM standards, but it also is comfortable and looks like casual clothing. "We wanted to create something that was unique to us," says O'Sullivan. "The clothing is protective but it also has the look and feel of normal clothing that someone can wear all day."
Benchmark FR has a full catalog of shirts, jackets, T-shirts, hoodies, pants, and accessories that are not only resistant to flame, but lightweight and moisture-wicking as well. "Most of the clothing is manufactured from our own proprietary fabrics," says O'Sullivan. "They resist ignition and self-extinguish when the source of the flame is removed. We use various fibers that are sourced from four different countries, including the U.S.A., and contract with mills to make our fabrics."
He adds, "Another benefit to our unique fabrics is that our products are skin-safe. We voluntarily keep formaldehyde levels low, lower than what's used in infant sleepwear. There are no outgassing or dermal problems with our apparel, either, and that can't be said about our competition."
With most of the industrial apparel made overseas, Benchmark FR competes against much larger companies, but the company's unique products are quickly gaining momentum within the electrical, gas, oil, mining, wind, and solar industries. "My wife and co-owner, Erin, designed the apparel knowing that people will wear our products more than anything else in their closet," says O'Sullivan. "We realized that people wanted other options of technical wear that looked great and was more personalized. We even have an Aloha FRiday Hawaiian-style shirt!" (Note: The capitalized FR is part of the brand name.)
On the manufacturing side, O'Sullivan says that consistency and quality are essential for apparel that protects against life-threatening situations. "We have lots of visual aids and QC systems in place," says O'Sullivan. "We have people that sew but, because we keep our product patterns for 10 years or more, we've invested in robotic machinery that can also be a part of the process and ensure consistency."
According to O'Sullivan, business is booming, but Benchmark FR is a small company catering to much larger organizations. "Since our product is technical, we have to go through committees to review our product who conduct their own studies on it," he says. "It's hard to get into these committees, but as people begin to wear our product, they love it and post photos on social media. That has also helped promote our brand."
He adds, "Social media really helps us with brand reach. Just like the folks who wear our products, we are proud of what we do and where we do it. Being active in our industry and a part of our customer's social media community is a big piece of it. They like showing off their cool work apparel."
Challenges: "Aside from trying to reach workers in the massive energy industries worldwide, our biggest challenge right now is trying to get back into our Tustin facility that was ravaged by a fire," says O'Sullivan. "It's ironic, but the building next door was a furniture manufacturer and the fire department said it started from an arc on a table saw. Our fabrics actually stopped the fire from spreading, but not before it totally destroyed our computers, documents, and other items. We're temporarily operating out of a facility in Santa Ana, California."
Opportunities: "We are geographically strong in certain parts of the market, and there's room to expand," says O'Sullivan. "The entire East Coast is untouched and offers lots of room for us to introduce our products to various energy industries across the country."
Needs: "One of the issues we face is what to do with our scraps of fabric," says O'Sullivan. "We're trying to find ways to upcycle remnants of this expensive and valuable fabric and make it into something useful."