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Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

Local business helps in fight against terrorism

Monday, November 15, 2004

(Photo)
Charlie Merrill, chairman of the New Madrid company Kontek, stands next to one of the company's newer products.
NEW MADRID - The video is impressive. A flat bed truck barrels down the roadway head-on into concrete barriers. The barriers give slightly, the truck crumples to a stop.

Charlie Merrill, chairman of Kontek, gives a nod of approval at the performance of the barriers created by his company. Now, he wants to create a new twist -- stopping a terrorist's bomb and a speeding truck.

It is the New Madrid-based company's next move into creating structures designed for Homeland Security.

Kontek's venture into Homeland Security came about almost accidentally.

The company was developed in the 1980s in response to the rapidly expanding communications business. Workers at the New Madrid plant created telecommunications buildings which were shipped throughout the country.

"The telecommunications' buildup was tied to the Internet. When the Internet bubble popped, our business fell off a cliff," said Merrill.

In an effort to survive, Merrill said he and Kontek's officers gathered in the conference room to discuss what future, if any, the company had.

"One of the things that came to mind was government business. It was post 9/11 and it was clear that security was a changing business," he recalled.

As they developed ideas and worked with their finance partner, they learned there would be more than just product development. Their finance partner encouraged Merrill and the company's other officers to contact their congressman.

"In our case, it was our congresswoman," said Merrill about Eighth District Representative Jo Ann Emerson. After a series of phone calls and meetings, Emerson along with Senators Christopher Bond and Jim Talent began to take interest in Kontek's products which includes vehicle and delay access barriers, blast resistant barriers, guardhouse shelters and telecommunication shelters. The support on the federal level helped as they sought business.

The company provided more than 1,500 modular blast barriers to U.S. Air Force at Whitman Air Force Base. Calling it a "highly visible project," Merrill estimated they produced some 12 miles of barrier.

Also they provided security perimeters for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, both national security facilities.

It was Emerson, he said, who pointed out the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had mandated more stringent security measures at the nation's 60 nuclear power plants. The NRC had issued security orders outlining the size and attributes of an attacking force against which the industry must be able to defend itself.

Kontek landed government contracts to provide security for 12 nuclear facilities in nine states. The job required concrete blocks, walls, barriers and fencing, all of which must be in place by Oct. 29 of this year.

In New Madrid, Kontek employees went to work making the steel structures for the blocks' interior. Some 30 miles of steel was cut into the forms needed. Also the curved blocks to complete the enclosures were cast at the local plant. Because of the straight blocks' immense weight (a small barrier weighs 11,000 pounds) shipping from the plant was not feasible. Molds were moved closer to the nuclear plant sites where the blocks were cast.

The company met the deadline.

"The successful competition of these extremely important projects further underscores Kontek's unique technical ability to simultaneously handle massive, complicated projects on time and to specification," said Kontek President Don Utz.

And the future is looking bright. Kontek will work with the University of Missouri-Rolla on a government-funded grant project to study blast mitigation. The $2.4 million study will help them understand how to better create protective barriers from bombs.

The grant funding for this research becomes available next spring.

Merrill can now look back at the 2001 Internet bust and breathe a sigh of relief. The company, which employs some 50 Southeast Missouri residents and provides a $2 million payroll annually, has not only survived, it has grown.

"We have very nearly doubled our best year ever," said Merrill. "We have five times the business from last year and we are doing things from coast to coast."

They are adding more products. Kontek has developed a brick and heavy-duty gauge steel fence or facade to provide a more attractive barrier for those concerned about security and aesthetics.

Merrill smiled and said: "You know the hardest question I answer now is what do you do? My engineer says ask them, 'What do you need?'"

And with government contracts and grants to their credit along with independent testing of their products' effectiveness, their displays draw crowds at gatherings of those interested in security. They are even getting inquires from Europe and the Middle East.

"You know," concluded Merrill, "for a small company in New Madrid, we are doing some pretty impressive things."