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From Backpack Maker To Military Supplier

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page E01

In 1981, Bea Maurer, Girl Scout troop leader and mother of two, took a job sewing tents for $3.10 an hour. Two years later, she bought the five-person company and grew it into a specialized government contractor. Last Thursday, she sold the firm for $80 million.

Not a bad couple of decades for the 63-year old grandmother.

Providing quality products and service was the key to making her company grow to include this production area in Sterling, Bea Maurer says. (Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

"I was really just basically a sky's-the-limit kind of person," Maurer said. "But I don't think I would have dreamed it, wouldn't imagine it."

The Fairfield, Va. company, which makes collapsible shelters for the military, was acquired last week by Hunter Defense Technologies Inc., a Solon, Ohio, firm that sells heating systems to the Defense Department. Executives say the combined company will generate more than $100 million in revenue this year.

The deal is just the latest in a series of pricey acquisitions of small defense contractors -- a trend that some industry officials say will not end soon.

"What larger companies are finding is that some smaller technology businesses have some niche that they want to get their hands on," said John C. Allen, managing director of BB&T Capital Markets/Windsor Group, a Reston investment banking firm that specializes in the government contracting industry. "And doing it through an acquisition is more cost-effective than building it themselves."

In recent weeks, Northrop Grumman Corp. said it would acquire Integic Corp. of Chantilly and Lockheed Martin Corp. announced plans to buy Sytex Group Inc. of Doylestown, Pa.

Sewing was a hobby for Maurer, the wife of a U.S. Customs official who spent much of her life working as a full-time mother. There were cheerleading uniforms to make and Girl Scout tents to patch. When the school needed duffle bags, Maurer's children were quick to volunteer her.

At age 41, as her children were preparing to go to college, Maurer decided to put her skills to slightly more lucrative use. She took a job as one of six seamstress sewing tents in Oakton for the outdoor equipment retailer Appalachian Outfitters. The job did not pay much, but it was fun and the circle of women became comrades.

Two years later, Maurer brokered a deal to acquire the small company, officially a subsidiary of Appalachian Outfitters, and moved it into the basement of her home.

"With just about everything I ever decided to do, my husband said, 'You can't do that.' And I would say 'I wish you hadn't said that, because now I have to do it,' " she said. nce she made the move, her husband fully supported it, she said.

Bea Maurer Inc.'s product line evolved throughout the next 20 years. The firm started making duffel bags and backpacks and soon added protective covers for cameras and other audio-visual equipment. After seeing the big boxes students were carrying their computers in when she moved her son into his college dorm, Maurer led her company into the computer case market.

The firm sold 20,000 computer cases to the Internal Revenue Service and many thousands more to the Census Bureau. But foreign competitors came in with better, cheaper products, so Bea Maurer started looking around for another market. The company dabbled with other government contracts -- making bar-code-reader cases for the U.S. Postal Service and heavy-duty curtains for Air Force hangars.

In 1985, Maurer met a Springfield inventor named Ted Zeigler who had created a type of pop-up backdrop often used for exhibition displays at trade shows. The two stayed in touch as Zeigler turned his attention to the creation of portable shelters for the military. In 1996, Bea Maurer Inc. struck a deal to license all of Zeigler's shelter patents.

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