Chances are most of the bad guys with guns or bombs in America's big cities may not know the name, but they have undoubtedly had some experience with Lenco Armored Vehicles.
Lenco the manufacturer of ultra-armored SWAT vehicles for elite police units throughout the United States has the market cornered.
Lenco's armored vehicles are so well-respected in the field, the head of the Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team calls them "awesome" and a "safe haven" for the city's tactical unit.
The Pittsfield-based company, founded in 1981, is celebrating its 25th year of operations, according to President Len Light. Light's parents, Leonard I. and Rosemary E. Light, founded Lenco.
Berkshire County is one of the national hubs in the armored protection business. Len Light's brother, Christopher Light, owns and operates Armored Solutions in Lee, a separate company that also manufactures armored vehicles, as well as bullet-resistant security products like bulletproof vests.
Pittsfield is also home to Protech, founded in 1983 by local businessman Phil Martino, who also started Protective Armored Systems, or PAS, in Lee in 1993. Protech, now owned by a Florida-based company, manufactures armored plates used by soldiers as inserts in their bullet-resistant vests, while PAS manufactures, among other things, bullet-resistant glass.
General Electric and Sheffield Plastics, both of whom manufacture plastic resins used in the making of armor, are also part of this industry. And the granddaddy of them all is Berkshire Armored Car, founded in 1957 and now part of AT Cash Transport Systems.
The senior Lights built a business that manufactured armored cars and trucks. But in 1992, Len Light bought out his parents and refocused the company as a manufacturer almost exclusively of specialized vehicles for Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units for large cities.
It was a move, said Light, that "revitalized" the company.
"I could see the days of cash transport were dwindling," said Light. "I use a swipe card for my coffee at Dunkin' Donuts these days. But, clearly, armed security for police departments and governmental agencies was not going away."
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Lenco is one of several local companies that manufacture and sell armored cars or other armored products.
In addition, both General Electric Co. in Pittsfield and Sheffield Plastics manufacture the resins used in the fabrication of armor and are a major player in the industry, as well. Here are the others.
Owner: Armored Holdings of Jacksonville, Fla.
Location: 446 Hubbard Ave., Pittsfield
Manufactures: Body armor, armored helmets
Owner: Phil Martino
Location: 100 Valley St., Lee
Manufactures: Bulletproof glass for military vehicles, armor plating.
Owner: Christopher Light
Location: 20 Keeler St., Pittsfield
Manufactures: Armored vehicles, a variety of bullet-resistant security products including vests.
Lenco secured contracts with the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff's departments, which gave the company a leg up on many competitors, said Light.
"Once you have a contract with LAPD, you're on the ground floor," said Light. "The LAPD essentially invented SWAT units. They are the cutting edge of SWAT technology."
Today, Lenco manufactures virtually every SWAT vehicle in the United States 4,000 since 1992 and presently about 200 annually. Light estimated that his company, which employs about 62 people, builds about "99 percent" of the SWAT vehicles in the United States.
Lenco vehicles are highly regarded in the SWAT world, according to Lt. Michael Albanese, officer in charge of the LAPD SWAT team.
"We use them on a regular basis, primarily for high-risk warrant services," said Albanese. "Out here, the violence is pretty challenging right now. And we have a lot of equipment we use, from guns, to helmets, to personal armor. And of all the things we deploy, these vehicles have been awesome. They are a safe haven for my men.
"We had a difficult situation last July, in which we faced individuals firing both rifle and small arms," said Albanese. "And there was no effect on the vehicle. A few little dings, and paint chips, but that was it."
Lenco works out of two locations, said Light. His original headquarters in the Downing Industrial Park is a 27,000-square-foot facility that the business outgrew a few years ago, but still uses.
A majority of the vehicles are manufactured at the newer, 63,000-square-foot facility at the Stearnsville Industrial Park off West Housatonic Street. Light purchased the former Pittsfield Mold and Tool building in 2004 for $2.2 million and has since invested another $4 million in equipment and retrofitting costs. For example, because virtually all of the steel used in the manufacture of the vehicles is in thick sheets, Light had to build mid-sized cranes at each workstation to help his employees move the sheets around.
Two of the most well-known vehicles manufactured by Lenco are the Ballistic Engineered Armored Response (BEAR) vehicle, which can carry up to 14 people, and the smaller BearCat, a 10-man tactical vehicle. LAPD has two BearCats and one BEAR, said Albanese.
For many years, the entire armor industry in Berkshire County kept a relatively low profile. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Len Light, "people understand what can happen."
At least in Los Angeles, Albanese said, residents better understand the need for superior weaponry, especially in the wake of the horrific 1997 shoot-out in North Hollywood. In that incident, two heavily armored men fired more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition, wounded 11 officers and five civilians, and destroyed 10 police cars. The men were eventually killed themselves.
Light explained that most of the tactical experts with whom he talks fear a scenario that includes an initial explosion or fire being set, and then when emergency personnel respond, a second bomb goes off to kill the responders.
"You have to have an answer for that," he said.