Delta Scientific Corp. in Valencia used to be the U.S. government's biggest supplier of anti-terrorist barricades, such as super-reinforced steel barriers designed to pop out of the ground and stop an oncoming suicide bomber in his tracks.
But by 1988 most U.S. embassies and other vulnerable government installations had been fortified against terrorist attacks. Also, international terrorism has been gradually declining, from 456 incidents in 1988 to 307 last year, according to the RAND think tank in Santa Monica.
The result: Delta's primary market collapsed--counterterrorist barricades had made up more than 80% of its sales in its fiscal year that ended June 30, 1988--and the company lost $250,000 the next year, its first loss since it was founded in 1974.
Delta had no choice but to diversify, so it went back to its less-glamorous roots in the parking-lot business, where it had made a name for itself in the early 1980s manufacturing parking-lot spikes (those familiar blades that puncture tires of vehicles entering or exiting the wrong way).
But this time it has a new product: parking kiosks.
"We got off our butts and went after some alternative-type products," said Delta's president and founder, Harry D. Dickinson, 64, who keeps on his desk a piston and severed crankshaft from a truck that slammed into one of Delta's barricades in a test run.
"We had a lot of good will because we still made the spike units," he said. "So when we came out with the kiosks, the same people that bought the spikes bought the cashier units," or kiosks.
Today, kiosks and other equipment for commercial customers make up 70% to 80% of Delta's sales, he said. By contrast, in fiscal 1987 nearly 90% of Delta's products were sold to the government.
"So it's completely flipped," Dickinson said.
The shift has paid off. Delta, which is owned by Dickinson and his wife, Margaret, is again profitable and expects record sales of $10 million in the current fiscal year ending next June. Sales last year came close to the company's previous record of $9.5 million, set in fiscal 1988, he said.
Since 1986, the company has doubled its number of employees, from 53 to more than 100. It outgrew its Burbank manufacturing plant and in 1988 moved into a 52,000-square-foot facility it built in Valencia.
Besides kiosks, the company makes parking gates (the kind with the wooden arms that lift up to let vehicles through), electronic vehicle detectors (example: wire cables that trigger a parking-lot ticket dispenser when driven over), and a variety of smaller electronic devices.
Meanwhile, the company keeps in close touch with its global network of customers through offices in London, Frankfurt and Fairfax, Va.
It's an impressive comeback for a company that saw sales nearly cut in half, to $5 million, in fiscal 1989 after its barricade sales plunged to a paltry 15% of its business from 80% a year earlier.
"The demand for the suicide-bomber barricades wilted," Dickinson said. "It just suddenly one day disappeared. We filled up all the holes, is what it boiled down to."
Indeed, by 1988 Delta had furnished the anti-terrorist systems for more than 1,100 sites, including the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Va., the U.S. Supreme Court building, the Pentagon and embassies from Munich to Manila, Buenos Aires to Beirut and Kuwait City to Casablanca.
According to the State Department, more than 200 of the nation's 257 embassies, consulates, missions and other diplomatic offices have been retrofitted with anti-terrorist barricades, most of them manufactured by Delta. Only two other companies, both on the East Coast, are qualified to make the barricades to government standards.
"The reason you don't see as much activity on these things anymore from the procurement standpoint is because they have worked," said a State Department official who asked not to be identified. "They have served their purpose and they continue to serve their purpose."
Dickinson said he knew of no terrorist attacks on installations that have been fortified with Delta's barricades.
Despite the drop in government contracts, Delta has kept a foothold in the barricade business. The devices made up 25% to 30% of the company's sales during fiscal 1991, but the focus has shifted from government users to commercial customers who mainly use the equipment to prevent theft, Dickinson said.
For example, a Macy's department store recently installed one of Delta's vehicle barricades--the same kind used by embassies and military bases to stop suicide bombers--to prevent thieves from driving off with merchandise-laden trucks parked overnight in the store's loading dock. The hydraulically operated barricades are lowered in the morning to let the trucks leave after they have been unloaded.
A similar system was put in place at a Pasadena pharmaceuticals manufacturer, which Dickinson declined to name for security reasons, to thwart thefts of prescription narcotics.