They’ve built or invented 176 gadgets over the years, spanning the defense, aerospace and medical industries. They’ve made stuff for the Patriot missile, grenade launchers and Chinook helicopters.
PPI even advised on a pooper-scooper for dog lovers.
Until recently, the company was a boutique manufacturer. Other companies and universities and the government would come to PPI with plans and schematics and say, “Can you build this?”
For that, PPI earns a fee. Sometimes, it takes equity in return for its manufacturing. It owns pieces of eight other companies.
PPI is one of the most offbeat companies I have written about.
Co-owners Joe and Italo Travez, brothers born in Ecuador, have built PPI over two decades into a think tank for engineers.
Their business plan for the past two decades has been “have a really cool place with really cool people.”
It’s cool, all right.
I felt like I was walking into a Brookstone store when I took a tour of PPI’s 30,000-foot Ashburn headquarters recently. The company has another 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Rockville.
One wing had tables strewn with a super-engineered Patriot missile rocket nozzle housings, thumbprint readers and a model for something called a Zipnut for the International Space Station. A white board had phrases such as “Hubble telescope” and “driver vision enhancement” scrawled on it. A nearby wall had photos of the solar-powered car one of PPI’s engineers drove across sunny Australia. There was a deconstructed rifle in its various parts.
I have a theory that those anonymous companies that fly under the radar screen in suburban industrial parks are actually cash machines. So when I was invited to see what goes on behind the neatly trimmed grass and smoked-glass office windows, I said yes.
PPI grossed $20 million in 2008, but that number dropped to about $11 million for 2009 and 2010, due largely to the recession and a slowdown on government contracts. The company expects revenue to rise to $15 million this year, and it is hoping to hit $30 million to $50 million by mid-decade.
PPI has only $1.5 million in debt because it rolls most of its profits back into the company. Its manufacturing equipment costs from $50,000 to $800,000, depending on the sophistication of the machine.
Joe Travez, 49, said PPI earns between 10 percent and 20 percent profits on its gross. It has lost money in only two years, 2001 and 2009. PPI has 90 employees, which is down from well over 100 in its pre-recession days.
It’s the variety of its work that makes the place so interesting.
When the military wanted kits allowing military vehicles to see in the dark and in sandstorms without lights, PPI built it.