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SPECIAL REPORT: Mr. Stop

David Dickinson describes Delta Scientific Corp.’s employees as blacksmiths with computers. “We cut and weld steel and put the strength where it is needed,” said Dickinson, the senior vice president who oversees daily operations of the Palmdale company that makes security barriers, barricades, gates and guard booths. The company was founded in 1974 by Dickinson’s father, Harry, who, at 89, still contributes new designs of the company’s products. From the Antelope Valley, Delta ships its products to U.S. embassies and military bases, port facilities and royal residences in Great Britain. Portable barriers provide security for events such as the visit by Pope Francis and the recently completed Democratic and Republican conventions. In total, more than 60,000 of its security systems have been installed in more than 100 countries. The company has 120 employees, of whom 85 are found on the shop floor. Dickinson, 62, is an engineer with an MBA from Pepperdine University. He spoke with the Business Journal about how terrorism has affected Delta’s business, where the next generation of manufacturers will come from and his hobby of boat building. Title: Senior Vice President, Delta Scientific Corp. Born: Hollywood, 1954 Education: Bachelor of science, USC; MBA, Pepperdine University Personal: Married with two children Hobbies: Building wooden boats Question: Do you have a favorite story about your barricades in action? Answer: Not a favorite one. It is a dark world and our clients don’t like to talk about it. The attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and in (Dar es Salaam) Tanzania – both those locations had (Delta) vehicle barricades. In one location the barrier was in the back corner of the building and a small portion of the building was damaged. Kenya was in the front of the building and many lives were lost there. They (the barriers) worked, basically. A barrier is part of a system; it is not the one thing that will stop everything. It would be a lot to say that barriers are the end-all, cure-all of all threats. They are not. How has Delta responded to the increase in terrorist activity? We have gone through a number of cycles where there has been a tremendous increase; 9/11, for example. We increased our production capability, our output, six fold to meet the world demand. We didn’t change our prices, just increased our output. After 9/11 we worked on DPAS, the Defense Priorities and Allocation System. It’s right out of World War II. It says that based on the government organization that needs the product, they get first priority. They can take things being built for someone else off the line and have it delivered to them. That happened a great deal right after 9/11. What motivates you? At this stage we’ve been in business for 43 years and it is to serve our clients, to keep running basically. It is a family business. My father Harry Dickinson is 89 and he is in the office designing right now. That is a strong motivator right there. It is good to have a purpose and we have our own legitimate purpose. What is that? Building counter-terrorism products and providing defensive measures for our clients. What is your top-selling product? We have a portable barricade that can be trailered into position. They used it at the Democratic convention and at the Republican convention so they can set up perimeter security to prevent a truck bomb attack or a vehicle assault. We have some that can set up in 15 minutes and others that take a week to install. What is the cost for these barriers? Barricades cost in the $35,000 to $40,000 range, depending on the size. We have a saying – we use the smallest barrier to do the job. We also look at the speed an attacking vehicle can get to a location which will affect how much kinetic energy will be put into the barrier. If there are tight turns, for example, and a vehicle can’t coordinate those, we use a smaller, more economical barrier. And you’re always coming up with new models? We keep designing new barriers because there are always applications that our products do not match. That gives us leadership in the field. How do you test the barriers? The vast majority of our testing is done by Karco (Engineering Inc.), a vehicle crash testing facility for safety measures, located in Adelanto. It is an independent test lab. We install the barrier, they quantify how we do that and they deliver a standard truck. And crash the truck into the barrier? Yes, they do that. We drag it away and analyze it. It’s a lot of fun. Do you watch the testing? I’ve been to almost all of them. I do the photography, as a matter of fact. And my dad, I always try to get a picture of him in it as the designer. The conditions out there can be extremely cold to blazing hot. Where are some places your barriers are used? We are worldwide. U.S. embassies are the obvious one. When the U.S. was very active in Afghanistan we were shipping portable barricades and beam barricades. We have heard of instances where truck bombs would come in and it was “Quick, get the Delta up.” They ducked and the explosion went off and the barricade still worked afterward. CarMax has been using our beam barriers, the smaller scale ones, as an anti-theft device for 12, 15 years. They have the lowest rate of vehicle theft because of the barriers and other security devices. Can you describe your manufacturing process? We are a flexible manufacturer. We build barricades to order, for the most part. We do it all here in Palmdale. We have a 250,000-square-foot building. We have lifting modules, bridge cranes, that we built ourselves. We can set up short runs or long runs, depending on the need of our customers. Given that flexibility, the product mix is changing all the time. How long have you been in Palmdale? A little over 10 years. Where had you been before that? Valencia. The reason we moved was we could acquire land and build here economically. Also, the time to get a building permit was greatly reduced compared to Santa Clarita. Palmdale was very pro-business, very helpful. They were serious about bringing in manufacturing. They did everything they said they were going to do and we did our side of it. We originally started in Burbank. Our origins are in the San Fernando Valley. What was your career turning point? I was designing medical instrumentation and there was a point when the family business was growing and needed me. I switched from chemistry and precision control devices to vehicle barricade design and management. You were in a completely different industry? Yes, it was biomedical research. But I grew up with this. I live and breathe it. I’m one of the founding directors of the company. It was good to have experience in another industry as well. I spent a lot of years in a lab. How did you bring that experience to Delta? The detail you go into with medical (products) can carry over into barricades. Reliability is crucial to our clients. After you’ve studied one science in depth, you find out it all comes down to chemistry, physics and biology. They are all the same subject. They all work with facts. What career advice would you give? I enjoy hiring young men and women who have just graduated. I think having a degree in engineering and then later in their career getting an MBA, for example, the dual combination of business knowledge and how to build things, works really well. We are going to need more of that. Anything you would have done differently in your career? From what we know today, we would streamline our manufacturing processes. You can look back and say, “These are the products that are the most successful, we should have focused on those earlier.” But you don’t go backward in life. What is the future of manufacturing in the United States? It is not going away. America has become service oriented. But those that can manufacture, and those that can manufacture in California, have to be some of the best around. There are not that many people around that can do it, so there is a premium placed on it. Might I add, the heavier, bigger, and more difficult it is to make things, you can get a premium for that. Couple that with innovation in basic manufacturing and there is no limit. Where do you see the next generation of manufacturers coming from? American innovation is hard to beat. The people we hire, you look at them they did not just go to school – they also rebuild engines on cars and they invent things. When we interview them, we ask them to bring in what they’ve done and it’s not just all class projects. They do innovative things. Who has been the most influential person in your life who is not a family member? My former boss Max Liston. He is the grandfather of modern automated clinical chemistry. He was a true generalist – chemistry, physics and biology. I got to work with him for 10 years and learned a lot from his approach to problem solving. He was 93 when he died. He was the toughest boss I’ve ever had in my life. What are your hobbies outside the workplace? I build wooden boats. I love using boats in the summer and I build them during the winter. I am building boat No. 5 right now, which is a 24-foot trawler. I have the hull built and it’s a lot of fun. It takes my mind off this and I get to work with my hands. What are the other four boats you’ve built? Some are small things like rowboats and canoes. I have a little motor skiff I built, which is just the sweetest little boat. I took it to go snorkeling off Point Fermin (near Long Beach) with my daughter. We put in right at Point Fermin and dropped anchor there.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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