John Koerner was just 18 when he planted the seeds that grew into his company, Elite Outfitting Solutions. He was working as a machinist at Choppers, and on the weekends, he would use their machines to bring his own ideas to life; namely, a sturdy, low-profile metal wallet. He started selling them on the side, and customer demand grew rapidly. So, in 2014, Koerner got a loan—he had to put his motorcycle and his car down as collateral—and bought his first machine.
Those early months were nerve wracking: he needed to make enough money to pay off the loan, and to innovate products that kept old customers coming back and drew in new shoppers. When the company became profitable enough to bring on a second member of the team, it was a huge relief.
As Elite Outfitting Solutions grew, Koerner continued to make smart investments—including a Firetrace suppression system that saved his company millions of dollars when a fire broke out this January in his shop. “You’d have to be out of your mind to not buy a Firetrace system if you have a machine that has oil coolant,” Koerner says. “I would never put myself at that risk.”
Elite Outfitting Solutions is a small operation with just five employees, and each member of the team, Koerner more than anyone, has to juggle responsibilities ranging from design and fabrication to customer care. On January 3rd, Koerner was on the phone with a client while the Citizen machine was cutting titanium screws. A .078” drill at 50,000rpm threw some sparks, and created a fireball when it hit the oil-based coolant. Before Koerner could even make it across the shop to hit the manual switch on the Firetrace system, it had automatically engaged and extinguished the fire, in what Koerner estimates was four seconds.
“Thank god it had the Firetrace on it, because it probably would have destroyed that machine and probably all the rest of the machines in my shop,” Koerner says. “It could have been a few million dollar hit. Not to mention, we're not the only business that's in this building. It could have been an absolute disaster.” Instead, the machine had only minimal damage—a few easily replaceable plastic air lines melted.
It was the first time in his career that Koerner had encountered a fire.
Since the early days, Elite Outfitting Solutions’ line has expanded to include high-end pocket knives and other everyday carry items. But their core product is still the wallet, which is simple and ingeniously designed: just two thin plates of stainless steel, secured together by twelve small screws and six burly bands, and outfitted with a thin titanium clip. The durable, utilitarian design appeals to consumers who work and play hard, and want accessories that can keep up.
The wallets weren’t particularly difficult to manufacture, either, except for the screws, which Koerner had to outsource. “We were buying screws that were too long for our wallets and grinding them down by hand to shorten them,” Koerner says. “When you have to do like 50 or 100 a week, that’s fine. But when you have to do like 2000 a week? It was starting to get out of control.”
Eventually, Koerner decided to invest in a Citizen, a $250,000 machine that could manufacture the short screws needed to reinforce their wallets and was capable of working with the titanium he needed for various other products as well. It operates with an oil-based coolant, rather than water—meaning the risk of a fire was higher than with their other machines, which operate with water-based coolant.
“Immediately, they told me, ‘You need to put a fire suppression system on this machine. These things can go up in flames and it can be catastrophic if you don't have the right equipment in place,’” Koerner says. “It was more money than I wanted to spend on a fire extinguisher. But I'm very glad that I did buy it.”
In the four years since he bought the machine, Koerner went through plenty of trial and error getting used to the Citizen. It was a gamble, Koerner says—his father, a successful salesman who advises him on most of his business decisions, encouraged him to think hard about whether this was necessary.
But despite being a bold investment, and potentially a risky piece of equipment to have in the shop, the Citizen has opened doors for Elite Outfitting Solutions. Not only did it allow them to fine-tune their own products and streamline their manufacturing, they’ve now become a go-to supplier for USA-made hardware for knives. Most shops are capable of making blades and handles, but they don’t have the desire or the means to start machining screws.
“The screw machine parts have been really lucrative for us, once we got the hang of it. I’d love to have a couple more of these machines in my shop in the future,” Koerner says. After we spoke to him, he was getting ready to cut more parts on the Citizen—just a week after the fire. “I can’t imagine how much money it would cost me if I didn’t have this machine for two months.