By John Jeter
If necessity is the mother of invention, then combat is one bad mother. Ross Johnson knows. Deployed to Afghanistan not long after 9/11, Johnson was a Green Beret medic at a firebase about a hundred miles southeast of Kabul when he saw another victim in the war: the military’s inventory of field-medical gear—some of it older than he was.
“I mean, we had bandages. From Vietnam. We still had Vietnam-era medical supplies,” says Johnson, 41, now CEO of Tactical Medical Solutions, which he founded in 2003 in Anderson. “We had a fair amount of casualties, mostly local, but a few U.S. Land mines. Rocket attacks. Stuff like that. Dealing with a lot of kids blowing up, and you’re working by yourself with no support.”
Since then, TacMed, as it’s known, found support from the Export-Import Bank (EXIM), a federal agency that extends Johnson’s company credit insurance for overseas transactions. Last year, TacMed’s foreign sales rose 34 percent, says EXIM, which in April named the designer and distributor of tactical medical equipment its “New Exporter of the Year.”
“In less than one year using EXIM’s insurance, TacMed shipped more than $4 million of life-saving products to customers in North America, Europe, and Australia,” says EXIM Executive Vice President and CEO Jeffrey Goettman.
Goettman, who presented Johnson the award at EXIM’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., cites TacMed’s “outstanding international sales growth and humanitarian efforts.”
Today, TacMed distributes some 2,000 different products to 1,000-odd customers, not just nationwide, but to nearly 80 countries.
EXIM, founded in 1934 under the auspices of the government’s Executive Branch, extends credit to U.S. exporters whose customers may be in risky markets. The agency’s “Export Credit Insurance” protects against nonpayment and enables U.S. exporters “open account” terms to its buyers, EXIM says, adding: “Now TacMed’s suppliers carry more inventory, and that has improved delivery time to end-users.”
At the time of the award, EXIM quoted Johnson as saying, “EXIM has been instrumental in TacMed’s international expansion. The ability to mitigate the risk associated with exporting at such a low cost is a powerful tool for a small business.”
Still, EXIM has become a political lightning rod. Conservatives, including the Koch brothers and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), oppose the export-credit bank’s “crony capitalism,” saying EXIM has become “the bank of Boeing.” Forbes in 2016 reported that the Seattle-based airplane manufacturer, one of the largest employers in South Carolina, “typically accounts for more than 40 percent of the bank’s credit activities.”
Yet, the agency says, “In FY 2016, more than 90 percent of EXIM Bank’s transactions—more than 2,600—directly supported American small businesses.”
That’s despite EXIM’s persistent lack of a quorum on its five-member board. Recalcitrant Congressional opponents refuse to fill those positions, and federal law prohibits the agency from making loans greater than $10 million without a quorum. According to a June report in Bloomberg, that has resulted in a $40 billion backlog on applications, largely from small businesses.
One EXIM advocate, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), notes the agency is self-sustaining; EXIM cites a $3.8 billion contribution back to American taxpayers since 2009.
EXIM also says it has supported 1.4 million jobs in the private sector in the past eight years. Among those jobs, Goettman says, are the ones in Anderson, including Johnson’s 31 employees, many of them veterans.
Finally, supporters also say the U.S. isn’t alone in the export-credit business; 100 other such agencies operate worldwide.
“Every other country has a form of EXIM bank in some form or fashion,” says Alan Hester, TacMed’s vice president and director of art and product design.
“It’s an honor to be chosen,” says Hester, also 41, and himself a former U.S. Army Green Beret who joined TacMed in 2011. “We’ve been doing business internationally for a while. It’s nice to have some cover to be able to expand that. It increases the market size in-country.”
“In-country” is definitely jargon from combat—experience that has led TacMed to develop 12 domestic and international patents. The company’s catalog now includes everything from first-aid kits to litters to field bandages, such as the one Johnson named after a buddy, Staff Sgt. Tony Olaes, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.
Today, TacMed’s customers include the Red Cross, South Carolina schools equipped with some 20,000 trauma kits, Jordanian hospitals, the U.S. Department of Defense, and first responders all over the country. (Coincidentally, another of the nation’s largest tactical-medical-equipment companies, North American Rescue, is a mere half-hour drive away, just off I-85 in Greer.)
Like every other startup, TacMed’s success didn’t come from out of nowhere. The idea for the company, which Johnson founded in 2003, germinated under some pretty hairy circumstances during one of his three tours in Afghanistan.
“My med room was a goat shack, just this one room, smaller than my office here,” says the tall, bearded executive who looks as if he could star in a big-studio war movie. “They just took the goats out, that’s where I did surgical deferments”—that is, patching up the wounded for transport to, say, Bagram Air Base, a five-minute flight from the Afghan capital but 30 to 40 minutes by helicopter from the outpost in Lwara.
From the goat shed to his garage, he worked on TacMed while still on active duty.
After leaving the service, he later moved his company to an 8,000-square-foot building. In 2014, he expanded to a 66-acre campus that includes a 300-meter shooting range behind a 25,000-square-foot facility that also boasts a heavy-duty gym.
Johnson says he continues building his entrepreneurial muscles—especially since, after a war zone, “anything is boring compared to going to combat, but it’s a tradeoff.”
Nowadays, he says, “I’m still transitioning to the smart-business-guy part. I got really lucky and have really good people here.”
As for TacMed’s growing opportunities nationwide and around the world, Johnson put it this way to EXIM officials in April: “Don’t be afraid to move forward and grow your business outside of our borders—exporting is not just for large companies.”