Modesto apparel maker hits its mark in Iraq

IRBIL, Iraq -- Shoppers in a street market in the shadow of Irbil's ancient citadel can pick up texts on Islam, cloth banners woven with images of Kurdish heroes and light sandals ideal for Iraqi heat.

Security professionals on the go might overlook the local goods when they spot an outlet for 5.11 Tactical, the Modesto uniform company known for heavy-duty equipment that suits the tastes of law enforcement and military types worldwide.

"It's good business," said Hussain Badir, the shop manager, adding that 5.11's relatively high prices by Kurdish standards don't limit his market.

His outlet opened two years ago as a branch of a 5.11 Tactical store in the Baghdad International Airport. That's a logical place for a 5.11 store because it's a hub for the 125,000 private contractors who continue to work in Iraq as the U.S. military reduces its presence in the country.

Modestan Dan Costa, founder of 5.11, said he was approached by a distributor who wanted to sell 5.11 gear after learning about it from a high-ranking military officer. It turns out the general was exposed to 5.11 at FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Va., where 5.11 apparel is standard issue.

After requiring the Iraqi businessman to pay in advance for the first two shipments, about $200,000 for each, Costa said the man is now one of 5.11's top dis- tributors. Besides the stores in Iraq, Costa said there also are billboards there promoting 5.11 gear.

Irbil is a safer place for Westerners than the streets of Baghdad, where Americans have to take precautions to protect themselves from kidnappings or violence.

Kurds tend to welcome Americans, having worked closely with U.S. forces since the 1991 Persian Gulf War to resist fallen dictator Saddam Hussein. That goodwill enables a store catering to American security contractors to get out of the airport and into a more public setting.

It's not the only clearly Western label in the citadel market. A Polo Ralph Lauren store sits on a side street around the corner.

Badir's shop sets its prices based on what 5.11 charges at its Web site. His store is stocked with thick boots, protective vests, sunglasses, Camelbak-type hydration backpacks, pants and watches that are meant to take a beating.

No knockoffs. "Everything is original," he stresses.

Some of the items cost more than $100, a stretch for most Kurds who, even with government salaries, earn less than $400 a month.

"It's very expensive," said Karwan Kamal, a 28-year-old tailor who sells hand-made shirts for about $15 in a nearby stall.

But it's worthwhile to 5.11's main market: high-ranking officers in the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Westerners who do business in this oil-rich region.

5.11 is a growing label that sought to expand in 2007 when Costa sold the brand for $305 million to TA Associates, a Boston private equity firm.

Costa said that the company's clothing and equipment is very popular in the Middle East, Europe and Mexico. "Our international business has just taken off," he said.

Because 5.11 is sold in more than 80 countries, Costa said, people shouldn't be too surprised to see its stores and equipment just about anywhere.

Bee business editor David W. Hill contributed to this report.

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