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In the game of self-defence

Sven Habermann of Maple Ridge holds a Tornado five-in-one pepper spray system that he supplies to consumers in the United States, along with other self-defence products. - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Sven Habermann of Maple Ridge holds a Tornado five-in-one pepper spray system that he supplies to consumers in the United States, along with other self-defence products.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

A chance encounter with a bear in the woods has led a Maple Ridge man to a new career making millions.

Sven Habermann was deer hunting near Cache Creek in 2008 when he surprised a black bear. The animal charged directly at the hunter, who reached for his clumsy spray cartridge in attempt to blast the animal.

Fortunately, the bear was only trying to get away and brushed Habermann as he ran by. Habermann survived, no thanks to the pepper spray, discovering later that the safety catch was on and he had it pointed the wrong way.

“Had there been an attack, I wouldn’t have been able to defend myself.”

He went home, did some research, found many encounters ended the same way, and thought there must be a better way.

What he invented as a result has changed his life.

Thanks to help from a local engineering company, ByMethod Design in Burnaby, Habermann, a former professional soccer player and car salesman, created Tornado Personal Defense Systems pepper spray device, which can be fitted in a small waist holster.

Months later emerged the Tornado Personal Defense Systems pepper spray device, a compact gizmo that fits on a belt, in a car, on a bicycle or arm band and blasts out a strobe light and alarm. As a final defence, it sprays excruciating and disabling pepper in less than a second. The design ensures that when it’s removed from its holster, it’s automatically locks on to the hand, pointed in the right direction.

Clients in the biggest market in the world like what they see. Walmart and Costco are selling the product online, often a prelude to in-store sales, while U.S. outdoor stores such as Cabelas, Menard’s, Gander Mountain and Big 5 Sporting Goods and a raft of smaller stores are carrying the line as well.

In 2011, sales hit $1 million thanks to a partnership deal with Ruger –  the largest firearms manufacturer in the U.S. – and recently bought 25 per cent of Tornado. Sales for this year are projected at $3 million.

“We’re becoming the non-lethal arm,” of Ruger, adds Habermann.

Initially, the company wanted to buy Tornado outright, but he didn’t want to sell.

“I invented the product and I’m not moving to the U.S.,” he says. “As soon as we got their name, our sales went through the roof.”

Recent development of a stun gun by Tornado and licensed by Ruger will spike sales again, he added.

The stun gun delivers an electrical charge on contact.

“It’s going to blow those other numbers right out of the water.”

Although the trigger-happy U.S. remains the No. 1 market, Tornado has moved into South Africa, Puerto Rico, Namibia, Peru, Ecuador, France, Philippines and Poland.

“The states has 10 times our population and no restrictions.”

Canada, though, remains a challenge.

Because the Tornado only carries 11 grams of pepper spray, it’s classified as a concealed weapon. Therefore, Tornado will have to design a larger device that carries 20 grams or more and won’t be considered a concealed weapon.

“We’re not legal in Canada because there are so many restrictions.”

That will require some money, which Tornado tried to acquire on a recent episode of CBC’s Dragons’ Den.

Habermann was asking for a million dollars in exchange for giving up a 10-per-cent share of his company.

The Dragons didn’t like that deal and countered with a million dollars for a quarter of the ownership of the company.

Habermann agreed to that when the show was taped last May, but his board of directors later nixed the offer. So developing a device that will be legal in Canada will have to wait until there’s cash to do so.

The Dragons focus too much on the numbers and not necessarily the potential of a company, Habermann said.

He described the experience, which took about 45 minutes of bargaining with only five minutes of that aired, as the “freakiest thing I have ever done.

“In hindsight, it was a lot of fun. Those guys are sharp.”

In the meantime, Tornado will continue with its model of manufacturing in China and distributing and assembling in the U.S., where the company employs about 80 people. Only two people run the Maple Ridge office.

For any other would-be inventors who have a great idea they’ve been nursing, Habermann offers some advice: run your idea past some strangers, not families or friends, to get some honest opinions.

Then, “If it’s a good idea, strap on your boots, because it’s a heck of a journey.”

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