Go to Mustang Survival’s website and you’ll see the motto, “We save lives for a living.” It’s more than just a slogan. In 2017 the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, and every day Mustang Survival and its 200 employees strive to make life on the water safer.
“Solving the real problems that save lives on the water is what drives the business,” Mustang Survival general manager Jason Leggatt says. “Our core product is all focused on personal protection.”
A good example of this is the development of the apparel designed for first responders who jump into cold, moving water to rescue someone. It may have evolved from immersion suits, but Leggatt explains that the company is more inclined to focus on designing gear for “someone who is jumping into the water helping someone who needs to survive.”
Today Mustang Survival, makes a range of products designed to protect and save the lives of people who enjoy and work on the water, including inflatable and foam-cored personal flotation devices, immersion suits, rescue gear and equipment bags.
The company, which is based in a 50,000-square-foot facility in Burnaby, British Columbia, also makes life-saving equipment for military and commercial use — even for NASA.
The Mustang story could have started and ended quickly. The company was founded as Mustang Sportswear Ltd. in 1967 by Irv Davies, who had been working for a rainwear distributor in the Pacific Northwest.
Davies had a falling out with his employer and decided to go into business for himself. He set out to make his own foul weather gear for people who worked on or around the water.
The biggest obstacle to success was the cost of goose down for insulation, so when a materials supplier told him that closed-cell foam would be just as warm and cheaper to use for insulation, Davies switched to it.
“The salesman told Irv that [the foam] was the same stuff they put in life jackets,” says Leggatt. “Irv said, ‘So my coats are actually life jackets?’ And thus was born the invention of wearable flotation clothing.”
The Style-100 Navy Blue Floater Coat was priced right, and it caught on quickly with folks in the Pacific Northwest. In 1968 Davies’ phone rang. When he picked it up, he heard, “This is John Wayne speaking. … I’ve got to get one of those (damn) jackets of yours. A buddy of mine has one here, and it’s the greatest.”
The following year, Mustang Survival moved into its first office and manufacturing facility in Vancouver, a 2,000-square-foot shop staffed by five employees, including Davies’ son Dwight, who eventually would become president of the company.
By 1972 Mustang Survival had grown to 40 employees and a new factory. After a few moves, the company spent 30 years in Richmond, B.C., before moving to its current facility. There are U.S. operations in Bellingham, Wash., as well.
One thing Davies did early on was develop a relationship with the military and coast guards in the United States and Canada. In 1974 the Mustang Style 1600 Vest became the first approved by the Canadian Coast Guard, and a few years later Mustang got its first approval from the U.S. Coast Guard. The service started using Mustang products in the late 1970s and still employs them today.
Leggatt explains that working with the Coast Guard in the United States and Canada was a smart business move on more than one level. In addition to the agencies creating a steady revenue source, Davies worked with them to establish standards for life jackets and rescue equipment to ensure that a competitor would not move in with a cheaper, lower-quality product.
When the America’s Cup races were at peak popularity, many crews were wearing Mustang gear. In 1980 the victorious crew aboard Freedom was wearing Mustang products. In 1983, Canada 1 was the country’s first entry into the competition, and its crew wore Mustang Survival gear, as well. In 1986 Mustang launched its Ocean Class Series, and today the crew of the 100-foot maxi racing sailboat Team Comanche wears Mustang Survival gear.
In 1985 the company redesigned its floater coat with “Must Move Technology,” which allows the wearer greater movement while wearing the garment. Mustang Survival also worked with the University of Victoria. One of the improvements was a flap of neoprene at the back of the jacket known as the “Beaver tail.” If the wearer needed to get into the water he would pull the flap down through his crotch and secure it to the front of the jacket to keep his most private of areas warmer.
The third incarnation of the Floater Coat came about five years ago, and the focus was to make it more breathable to let moisture and body heat out. That goal was accomplished by using wicking material on the inside and a breathable outer fabric.
Other products have included a Nomex-Gore-Tex suit and underarm flotation devices for pilots. In 1989 Mustang Survival even developed the Ice Rider series — buoyant snowmobile wear for sledders in case they fall through a frozen lake.
In 1990 Mustang Survival became one of four companies worldwide to qualify to make anti-G suits. Two years after receiving ISO 9001 certification, Mustang Survival had a big year in 1995, launching the Sea Rider jacket for the personal watercraft market and receiving a NASA contract to co-develop and supply inflatable life preservers for the space shuttle program.
Additionally, the company collaborated with Boeing to make a chemical-biological cold-water immersion garment for the life support system of an F-22 fighter.
When inflatable personal flotation devices arrived, Mustang introduced its Airforce by Mustang models in 1997. They are Coast Guard-approved, and in 2004 the company introduced L.I.F.T. Technology on its inflatable life jackets, which resulted in 80 percent fewer mouth immersions, significantly reducing the risk of drowning.
One year later, Mustang’s H.I.T. system was introduced on inflatable PFDs. For the H.I.T. technology, Mustang Survival worked with the Swedish company Hammar and has licensed the rights to the technology in North America.
The key feature of this product is that the automatic inflation system won’t accidentally activate from rain, wash or spray. The National Marine Manufacturers Association gave the H.I.T. technology its Innovation Award for Safety in 2006. The following year, Mustang Survival picked up another Innovation Award for safety for its Rescue Stick throwable emergency inflatable.
The evolution of Mustang products continued in 2011 with the M.I.T. inflatable PFD. The abbreviation stands for Membrane Inflatable Technology, which makes the new generation of life jackets lighter and more comfortable. Mustang Survival has designed and launched the only inflatable PFD certified by Transport Canada, the MD3157. The U.S. Coast Guard selected Mustang Survival’s Sentinel Series of lightweight and heavy-duty boat crew suits for onboard use and the agency approved Mustang Survival’s MD3188 for commercial use.
In the military, Mustang Survival is part of a team that produces the Air Force’s Integrated Air Crew Ensemble. The company even got into surfing, working with Billabong to integrate Mustang Survival’s M.I.T. bladder system into Billabong’s new V1 wetsuit, working with surfer Shane Dorian. The wetsuit won Popular Science magazine’s “Best of What’s New” award in 2011.
Leggatt says the company’s biggest single customer group is bass fishermen. In 2011 Mustang Survival formed a partnership with B.A.S.S. as its official partner, providing professional anglers with PFD inspections and 140 inflatable jackets at several tournaments, including the annual Bassmaster Classic. The sailing market remains steady, and kayaking and SUP board users are growing segments.
One product that has recently come to market targeted at kayakers and anglers is a waterproof, breathable two-piece drysuit. Users can wear the top or bottom individually or zip them together to make a complete garment.
In 2013 The Safariland Group acquired Mustang Survival, but the two companies are run pretty much autonomously, with Leggatt managing the day-to-day operations in Burnaby. As Mustang Survival moves toward the future the company has a new hybrid PFD that combines foam and flotation in a low-profile wearable jacket that offers a little buoyancy until a wearer can inflate it.
“It has amazing appeal to paddlers and dinghy sailors,” says Leggatt. “The opportunities are endless.” Look for the hybrid product in the spring of 2018. The company also will have a new website next year.
Of course, even with the technology that makes its products safer, Mustang Survival knows the biggest challenge remains getting people to wear it.
“It’s become a piece of cake to make something that will float you properly, but how do I design something that is comfortable to wear and attractive?” says Leggatt. “We want the person to wear and use these things.”
It’s in the blood
The Safariland Group, of Jacksonville, Fla., is the parent company of Mustang Survival, and the two have similar histories.
Mustang was formed to provide equipment to save lives on the water. The Safariland Group came about as the result of a search for ways to make law enforcement personnel safer.
In 1964 Neale Perkins’ father asked him to make a custom holster. Perkins named the company Safariland after the safari excursions that he and his father enjoyed. Within a few months Perkins went from making a few every month and selling them from his garage to making more than 5,000.
What made the holsters so sought after was that before they were introduced, many law enforcement officers were being shot with their own weapons. Perkins’ holster was designed with an uncoupling trick that the user had to know to remove his weapon.
Today The Safariland Group also offers a full complement of body armor and protective gear, but the company’s stated mission remains the same: “This is The Safariland Group. And Together, We Save Lives.”
What’s in a name?
When Irv Davies started his company, he had to come up with a name. Many people think that it had something to do with a horse or even a seahorse, which is the current logo, but it wasn’t that deep. Davies liked the Ford Mustang, which was one of the hottest muscle cars around at that time. He named the company Mustang Industries and one of the first employees came up with an early version of the logo, featuring a horse’s head.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue.