Forget Holiday Sales -- Struggling Retailers May Turn to Defense Contracts to Keep From Going Under
Is it possible that one of the Pentagon's contractors has a tripartite business model for our tough economic times: one division that specializes in crock-pots, another in adult diapers, and a third in medium caliber tactical ammunition? Can the maker of the SaladShooter, a hand-held electric shredder/dicer that hacks up and fires out sliced veggies, really be a tops arms manufacturer? Could a company that produces the Pizzazz Pizza Oven also be a merchant of death? And could this company be a model for success in an economy heading for the bottom?
Once upon a time, the military-industrial complex was loaded with household-name companies like General Motors, Ford, and Dow Chemical, that produced weapons systems and what arms expert Eric Prokosch has called, "the technology of killing." Over the years, for economic as well as public relations reasons, many of these firms got out of the business of creating lethal technologies, even while remaining Department of Defense (DoD) contractors.
The military-corporate complex of today is still filled with familiar names from our consumer culture, including defense contractors like iPod-maker Apple, cocoa giant Nestle, ketchup producer Heinz, and chocolate bar maker Hershey, not to speak of Tyson Foods, Procter & Gamble, and the Walt Disney Company. But while they may provide the everyday products that allow the military to function, make war, and carry out foreign occupations, most such civilian firms no longer dabble in actual arms manufacture.
Whirlpool: Then and Now
Take the Whirlpool Corporation, which bills itself as "the world's leading manufacturer and marketer of major home appliances" and boasts annual sales of more than $19 billion to consumers in more than 170 countries. Whirlpool was recently recognized as "one of the World's Most Ethical Companies by the Ethisphere Institute." The company also professes a "strong" belief in "ethical values" that dates back almost 100 years to founders who believed "there is no right way to do a wrong thing."
In the middle of the last century, however -- as Prokosch has documented -- Whirlpool was engaged in what many might deem a wrong thing. In 1957, Whirlpool took over work on flechettes -- razor-sharp darts with fins at the blunt end -- for the U.S. military. While International Harvester, the prior Pentagon contractor producing them, had managed to pack only 6,265 of these deadly darts into a 90mm canister round, Whirlpool set to work figuring out a way to cram almost 10,000 flechettes into the same delivery vehicle. Its goal: to "improve the lethality of the canisters." (In addition, Whirlpool also reportedly worked on "Sting Ray" -- an Army project involving a projectile filled with flechettes coated in a still-undisclosed chemical agent.)
In 1967, an Associated Press report noted that U.S. troops were using new flechette artillery rounds to "spray thousands of dart-shaped steel shafts over broad areas of the jungle or open territory" in Vietnam. "I've seen reports of enemy soldiers actually being nailed to trees by these things," commented one Army officer.
On a recent trip to Vietnam, I spoke to a Vietnamese witness who had seen such "pin bullets" employed by U.S. forces many times in those years. In one case, Bui Van Bac recalled that a woman from his village, spotted by U.S. aircraft while she was walking in a rice paddy, was gravely wounded by them. Local guerillas came to the woman's aid and brought her to a hospital where a surgeon found a number of extremely sharp, three centimeter long "pins" inside her body. Medically, it was all but hopeless and the woman died.
A top player in lethal technologies back then, Whirlpool is now among the tiniest defense contractors. While, in recent years, the company has ignored requests for information from TomDispatch.com on their dealings with the Pentagon, records indicate that last year, for example, it received just over $105,000 from the Department of Defense, most of which apparently went towards the purchase of kitchen appliances and household furnishings.
Similarly, Whirlpool's predecessor in the flechette game, International Harvester, is now Navistar International Corporation. Navistar Defense, a division of the company, remains one of the Pentagon's stealth "billion dollar babies." But while it did more than $1 billion in business with the DoD last year, Navistar appears to have been building vehicles for the Pentagon, not creating anti-personnel weaponry. There are, however, companies that can't seem to say goodbye to lethal technologies.
National Presto Industries
National Presto Industries traces its history to the 1905 founding of the Northwestern Iron and Steel Works in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, according to the Business & Company Resource Center. By 1908, the company was making industrial steam pressure cookers and, in 1915, began making models for home use. On the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II, the company entered the arms game when it scored a multi-million dollar contract to produce artillery fuses. Even with that deal in hand, it was reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy when its new president, Lewis Phillips, landed a series of other lucrative military contracts.
In the early years of the Cold War, about the time Whirlpool was getting into the flechette business, National Presto Industries had just introduced "a revolutionary new concept in electric cooking… a complete line of fully immersible electric cooking appliances employing a removable heat control" -- and was about to launch "the world's first automatic, submersible stainless steel coffee maker." The company was also still churning out war materiel.
In 1953, National Presto announced plans to build a multi-million dollar plant to produce 105mm artillery shells. In 1955, it was awarded millions to make howitzer shells for the Army, and the next year, millions from the Air Force for fighter-bomber parts. By 1958, company President Lewis Phillips would declare, "The future of this company in Eau Claire and hence the security of our jobs here is now almost wholly dependent upon defense contracts awarded by the U.S. Government." When the Army cancelled its contracts with Presto in 1959, Phillips lamented, "With little or no notice, this Government decision has forced us completely out of the manufacturing business here in Eau Claire."
The tough times didn't last. Soon enough, National Presto returned to the fray, benefiting from the disastrous American war in Vietnam. From 1966 to 1975, the company manufactured more than two million eight-inch howitzer shells and more than 92 million 105mm artillery shells. In Vietnam, 105mm shells would kill or maim untold numbers of civilians, but it was a boom time for National Presto, which took in at least $163 million in Pentagon contracts in 1970-1971 alone for artillery shell parts. Finally shuttered in 1980, the company defense plant was kept on government "stand-by" into the 1990s, a sweetheart deal that earned Presto $2.5 million annually for producing nothing at all.
As the Vietnam War wound down, National Presto turned back to the civilian market with a series of new kitchen gadgets: in 1974, the PrestoBurger, an electric, single-serving fast broiler for hamburgers; in 1975, the Hot Dogger; and in 1976, the Fry Baby deep fat fryer. In 1988, the company introduced its wildly popular SaladShooter, followed in 1991 by its Tater Twister potato peeler. When sales of its SaladShooters, corn poppers, pressure cookers, deep fryers, and griddles became sluggish, however, weaponry again proved a savior.
In 2001, National Presto decided to get back into the arms game. Months before 9/11, the company's chairman Melvin Cohen expressed fears that a future war might mean ruin for the company's kitchen appliance business. As a result, Presto purchased munitions manufacturer Amtec. In the years since, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Presto has also "made other complementary acquisitions in the defense industry." These have included Amron, a manufacturer of medium caliber ammunition (20-40mm) cartridge cases and Spectra Technologies, which is "engaged in the manufacture, distribution, and delivery of munitions and ordnance-related products for the DOD and DOD prime contractors." Such types of ammunition are extremely versatile and are fired from ground vehicles, naval ships, and various types of aircraft -- both helicopters and fixed-wing models.
Additionally, in the months after 9/11, National Presto entered the diapers trade, setting up that business in its old munitions plant. In 2004, with Melvin Cohen's daughter MaryJo now at the helm, the company further expanded into the business of adult-incontinence products. "I spent a couple of days wearing them," the younger Cohen told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time. "They're very comfortable."
In 2005, Presto's Amtec was awarded a five-year deal by the Pentagon for its 40mm family of ammunition rounds. By the end of last year, it had already received $454 million and was expecting the sum to top out, at contract's end, above $550 million.
Just as 105mm shells of the sort produced by Presto were a nightmare for the people of Vietnam, so too has 40mm ammunition spelled doom for civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the BBC reported on a typical joint U.S./U.K. attack on a home in Iraq in which insurgents had taken shelter. After exchanging ground fire, coalition forces called in an airstrike. According to the BBC, "The aircraft fired 40mm cannon rounds at the two houses, finally dropping a bomb on one of them. It collapsed. The other house was set on fire. The two insurgents in the house were buried but so were a number of women and children." Similarly, in August, news reports tell us, U.S. troops called in an airstrike by an AC-130 -- which packs 40mm cannons -- that helped kill approximately 90 civilians in the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan, according to investigations by the Afghan government and the United Nations.
As in the past, war time has been a boom-time for Presto. In 2000, before the start of the Global War on Terror, National Presto's annual sales clocked in at $116.6 million. In 2007, they totaled $420.7 million, with more than 50% of that coming from arms manufacturing. Earlier this year, Presto nabbed another 40mm ammunition contract (a $97.5 million supplemental award) set to be delivered in 2009 and 2010. According to official DoD figures, from 2001 through 2008 National Presto received more than $531 million, while Amtec has taken home another $171 million-plus. Their combined grand total, while hardly putting Presto in the top tier of Pentagon weapons contractors, is still a relatively staggering $702.8 million -- not bad for a company known for slicing and dicing vegetables.
Death is Our Business and Business is Good
These days, most civilian defense contractors aren't like Presto. General Tire and Rubber Company, for example, once lorded it over a business empire that produced not only car tires, but antipersonnel mines and deadly cluster bombs. Today, the company seems to have left its days of supplying the U.S. military with lethal technologies behind.
Dow Chemical classically drew ire from protestors during the Vietnam War for making the incendiary agent napalm that clung to and burned off the flesh of Vietnamese victims. Dow got out of the napalm business long before the war ended, but, due to widespread protests at the time, the company is still living down the legacy today.
At a 2006 Ethics and Compliance Conference, Dow's President, CEO, and Chairman Andrew Liveris recalled, "Believe me, we have had our share of ethical challenges, most of them very public… starting with the manufacture of Napalm during the Vietnam War… when suddenly we went from being a company that made Saran Wrap to keep food fresh to a kind of war machine… at least, according the characterizations of the time." While Dow is still a defense contractor, its DoD contracts appear not to include the manufacture of weapons of any type. Instead, such companies have largely ceded the field to dedicated "merchants of death" -- weapons-industry giants like Alliant Techsystems (ATK), Lockheed Martin, and Boeing.
Right now, National Presto Industries may look like a throw-back to an earlier era when companies regularly made both innocuous household items and heavy weapons. In a new hard-times economy, however, in which taxpayer dollars are likely to continue to pour into the Pentagon, could it instead be a harbinger of the future? Having proved that outfitting real shooters is even more lucrative than making SaladShooters, Presto has gotten rich in the Bush war years. It has, in fact, greatly outperformed the big guns of the weapons business. While the stocks of top defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman have all lost significant value in the last year -- down 29.3%, 55.3%, and 50.1%, respectively -- National Presto's stock price was up 28.1% as of mid-December.
It isn't hard to imagine more civilian firms, especially ones which are already Pentagon contractors, getting into (or back into) the weapons game. After all, when the Big Three Detroit automakers were scrounging around for a bailout just a few weeks ago, they used America's persistent involvement in armed conflict as one argument in their favor. For example, Robert Nardelli, Chrysler's chief executive, told the Senate that the failure of the auto industry "would undermine our nation's ability to respond to military challenges and would threaten our national security." While that argument was roundly dismissed by retired Army Lt. Gen. John Caldwell, chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association's combat vehicles division, it probably wouldn't have been if the automakers made more weapons systems.
Will Presto be the back-to-the-future model for Pentagon contractors in the lean times ahead? Only time will tell. At the very least, it seems that, as long as Americans allow the country to wage wars abroad, require their salads to be shot, and have bladder issues, National Presto Industries has a future.