New market, products help light up MN8's sales

Posted at 6:01 AM, Jan 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-10 15:05:01-05

WOODLAWN, Ohio -- Volunteer firefighter Zachary Green started MN8 (think “emanate,” as in “to give out or emit”) nearly five years ago to provide firefighters with equipment that glowed in the dark.

The goal is to make it easy for firefighters to be seen in a darkened, smoke-filled building. Now, with the firefighter market well in hand, MN8 is aiming for a much bigger market — glowing signage for large buildings, particularly exit signs.

What does the company do?

MN8 has two divisions. Its Foxfire division makes and sells equipment to firefighters, and its LumAware division makes and sells luminous signage that guides people out of buildings. The chief ingredient in the luminous mix is the element strontium, which makes MN8’s products glow much brighter than a typical glow-in-the-dark child’s toy.

Who are its customers?

Firefighters and fire departments remain the company’s bread and butter. There are about 1.2 million firefighters in the United States, and about 70,000 now wear MN8-lighted equipment, Green said. One wall of the company’s office and warehouse in Woodlawn is covered with patches from fire departments that use MN8 products, including the tiny department at Skywalker Ranch, created by George Lucas as the home to Skywalker Sound.

Exit signs, though, are the “holy grail” for MN8, Green said. Most buildings now have electric signs that require a battery and other maintenance costs. Glowing exit signs cost about the same as electric signs, he said, and pay for themselves in about 1.3 years. He estimates there are 100 million exit signs in the United States — an enormous potential market.

Sports arenas and event spaces are another potential market. MN8 has installed glowing strips in stairwells at about a dozen such buildings, including BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Ky., and the FirstMerit Convention Center of Cleveland.

How big is the company?

MN8 has 12 employees including Green. Last year, sales topped $1 million, and Green said he’d be disappointed if they don’t top $3 million this year. MN8 just inked a deal to replace exit signs for a large retailer, whom Green declined to name, which has thousands of stores. Some local hospitals also have also agreed to have MN8 replace some of their exit signs to see how well they work, Green said.

Who are the owners?

Green owns 55 percent. Rippe Kingston Capital Advisors, or RKCA, a Cincinnati middle-market investment bank, owns one-third. The rest is owned by Green’s friends and family. Rippe Kingston made its investment three years ago, Green said, and encouraged MN8 to leverage its firefighter expertise and brand recognition into the safety arena.

What’s owning a small business like?

Green, who’s a Marine Corps veteran, said it’s the hardest thing he’s has ever done. He was an executive with Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis before he left to found MN8.

He expected that once the business was up and running it wouldn’t have as much need for cash, he said, but that hasn’t been the case. About a year ago, the company had a cash-flow crunch because some customers were paying their bills late. MN8 turned to StreetShares, which operates connects veteran-owned small businesses that need money with entrepreneurs who can make peer-to-peer microloans. MN8 borrowed $50,000 and eased the cash crunch.

What honors has MN8 received?

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce gave the company its Excellence in Entrepreneurship award in 2013.

In May, Green testified before the U.S. House Small Business Committee in Washington about the challenges small businesses face getting access to growth capital. Tears came to his eyes and he choked up as he talked about refinancing his home, maxing out his credit cards and using most of his savings to start his business.

VIDEO: Profile of Green by Small Business Committee.

What’s next?

Challenges now include reducing costs and beefing up MN8’s supply chain. To address the latter, starting this quarter, the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s workshop will handle all of MN8’s manufacturing. Visually impaired people, who “see” with their fingers, can find imperfections that sighted people can’t, Green said.

Another challenge is persuading building owners to adopt the new technology. MN8’s products are cutting-edge, Green said, but many companies say they want what’s always worked.

About MN8 Foxfire