Fighting terror, saving lives Charleston’s CSI provides equipment to protect soldiers from bomb threats

Critical Solutions International is a top provider of blast-protected vehicles called Huskys that can detect mines and improvised explosive devices.

When your customers are in Middle East terrorist strongholds where bombs and torture are an everyday occurrence, your work takes on special significance.

You’re not just making widgets or selling products — you’re saving lives.

It’s that mindset, according to Patrick Callahan, that sets Charleston-based Critical Solutions International apart from most other companies.

“We do what others will not do,” said Callahan, the company’s CEO. “We embed the customers and stay with them, no matter what.”

CSI is a top provider of blast-protected vehicles — called Huskys — that can detect mines and improvised explosive devices on the battlefield. The company recently relocated its headquarters from Carrollton, Texas, to a site on Clements Ferry Road in Berkeley County. Its biggest customer is the U.S. military, but CSI also provides equipment and training to armies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the company’s latest initiatives is providing Huskys and training to the Iraq Ministry of Defense to help defend Tikrit and Mosul, a pair of cities under attack by the Islamic State terrorist group. Seven CSI employees will be working side-by-side with Iraqi soldiers to teach them how to use and maintain the 25 vehicles.

“We are trying to rid the world of unexploded ordnance that is scattered around the planet, killing people every single day,” Callahan said. “It’s an incredible mission, and I feel lucky to be a part of that.”

A private company, CSI doesn’t release its financial statements. But a database of federal contracts awarded to private businesses shows CSI has received more than $1.1 billion through more than 1,600 transactions with the U.S. military and other agencies since its formation in 2009.

CSI’s most recent sale of Huskys to Iraq was worth $73.5 million. The company announced last week that the U.S. government has confirmed a new order for 10 Husky 2G mine-clearance vehicles to be deployed in Iraq as coalition forces continue to improve route clearance abilities.

Among the company’s largest investors is Sentinel Capital Partners, one of the nation’s largest private-equity firms. Sentinel Capital combined with CSI founders Tennessee Valley Ventures in 2011 to recapitalize the company. Terms of that deal were not disclosed, and Matthew Harrison, operating partner of Sentinel Capital and a CSI board member, could not be reached for comment.

Graham Schena, a vice president at Sentinel Capital, said at the time of the recapitalization that, “CSI’s life-saving products and leading market position, coupled with a highly visible future revenue stream make it an attractive investment opportunity.”

Callahan — like many of CSI’s 35 employees — is a veteran, having served in the Army from 2002 to 2012, including a deployment to Iraq in 2004.

Tyler Sammis, director of emerging products, said his military background gives him a “personal investment” into the success of CSI’s customers. Sammis, who also spent time in Iraq during his Army enlistment, said the company’s small size allows it to partner with customers on such a basic level.

“We understand our clients’ needs and then we go out and partner to find the best supplier,” he said.

CSI, which partners with dozens of suppliers including Husky maker DCD Protected Mobility of South Africa, has sold more than 1,500 Huskys to seven companies and militaries. Scott Butler, CSI’s business development manager, said the Husky has evolved over the years as explosive devices have evolved.

The vehicles can include a thermal imaging, vehicle-mounted crane system to investigate and remove explosives, as well as ground-penetrating radar to find buried explosives. The vehicles can be operated manually or by remote control, and they include cameras that can zoom in on objects hundreds of yards away. Software can be used to program unmanned missions operated by GPS.

“To date, the Husky has experienced over 7,000 IED blasts without loss of life, limb or eyesight to the operator,” Butler said. “It is the most survivable vehicle in the wheeled fleet in the U.S. military.”

CSI also provides audio and video surveillance systems and lightweight charges to clear terrain such as landing zones. But its hallmark, along with the Husky, is field service and training.

“Going into the field and embedding with our customers, no matter what the security situation is, I truly believe that’s the driving factor to our enduring success,” Callahan said.

It’s one of the reasons Callahan had no problem letting one of his key employees — Heather Schoetz, chief strategy officer — spend a year in Afghanistan, where she trained that country’s military forces in logistics, equipment maintenance and sustainment. Schoetz, who came to CSI from General Dynamics Land Systems, was part of a NATO-led group providing international security assistance.

“It’s very uncommon to have a company that understands that the sacrifice of giving up a key employee for a full year for a noble cause has value,” said John Johns, the U.S. government’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for maintenance policy and programs, who attended CSI’s opening ceremony earlier this month.

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who also attended the ceremony, called CSI an example of perseverance. “Building a little company that very well may become a giant company takes a certain level of tenacity that doesn’t exist with some of the big defense giants, where things come so easily,” Sanford told CSI employees. “You have to carve out market share. There’s just raw passion in this building.”

The former governor said the company is a welcome addition to other defense-related firms in the Charleston region, such as Lockheed Martin’s information systems center and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Altantic, or SPAWAR, that provides intelligence, communications and surveillance services to the military.

“This is a celebration of small businesses and defense businesses in the Lowcountry,” he said. “And it’s a celebration of life. This idea of a war on terror that’s still going on, it sometimes gets pushed to the back pages, but that struggle and that adherence to saying we want to do something about protecting life is a very noble task.”

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on  Twitter at @David_Wren_