Business and charity can mix and often do, but it's rare for the balance to tilt so far to the service side of things as it does at American...

Share story

Business and charity can mix and often do, but it’s rare for the balance to tilt so far to the service side of things as it does at American Preparedness.

But the company’s president, Jeff Guite, thinks it’s business, and especially big business, that ought to take responsibility for the community. Charity isn’t about leftovers. “You have to be hardworking and smart to help other people,” Guite said. “You can’t do it if you’re lazy and dumb.”

American Preparedness is run by Guite and Sherman Fantroy, a couple of disabled Army veterans who after years in other businesses decided they wanted to leave a different kind of legacy.

They make, sell and donate emergency preparedness kits. Guite, who started the business 20 years ago, is an evangelist of preparedness out to convert everyone to the belief that one of his kits could provide salvation, if not for their souls then certainly for their bodies.

He’s a tall man whose swept back hair and full face make him look like a TV preacher. His fervor makes him sound like one.

James Kim (the San Francisco man who died in the Oregon mountains recently trying to save his family) didn’t have to die, he tells me. A kit with water, food, hand warmers and blankets could have saved his life.

Wouldn’t things have been different after Katrina if more people had been prepared to survive on their own for a few days?

Three days after Katrina hit, Guite got a call from the Federal Emergency Management Agency asking for 1.5 million kits. They wanted all of them that day.

Maybe I’d better describe the operation.

You know those storage facilities sprinkled around Sea-Tac Airport? Well, American Preparedness is run out of one of them in the city of SeaTac. There is a small office that Guite and Fantroy share and behind that, there’s a row of storage units stuffed with kits and material for kits.

When I visited, two women in one of the spaces were putting together kits on folding tables. The kits come in a variety of sizes and configurations. It’s a lean operation, but well-organized and flexible. Everything is numbered and labeled, and when there’s a big order they just rent more space or use a facility another business gives them access to.

They have a core of seven people but more they can call on for larger jobs.

But 1.5 million kits in a day? No way.

One of the things that infuriated Guite is that the government wasn’t prepared to begin with.

I lost track of how many times he told me the Department of Homeland Security has spent $3 billion telling people to be prepared but not a cent helping them do that.

The government isn’t going to take care of business, so he will.

Guite grew up in northern Minnesota in a family with 11 kids but came out here to attend the UW, where he earned a couple of degrees. He’d been in the Army in 1965-69 and worked his way up to sergeant.

He didn’t think about preparedness until the Red Cross in King County asked him for fund-raising ideas. Guite suggested they sell emergency kits. He was running a business and helping the Red Cross, but he couldn’t continue doing both, so he decided it was time for a change, which gave birth to American Preparedness.

Fantroy joined the company two years ago and still runs his marketing and promotions business on the side. He’d been thinking about his own legacy since 9/11, and meeting Guite gave him a way to give back.

Guite still makes kits for the American Red Cross. In fact, American Preparedness is the vendor of choice for the national organization, and the sole provider for the federal government listed by the Government Services Administration.

This year, they shipped 20 semi loads of kits to Red Cross chapters across the country. The thing that keeps them in business is supplying the kits Costco sells, because that provides a steady income.

They’ve targeted three groups for free kits: Schools, law-enforcement officers and low-income families, including military dependents.

Because they can’t give away enough kits for all of those groups, they get other businesses to buy kits and donate them.

Last week they gave kits to Navy families on Whidbey Island.

They’re trying to raise $44,000 to supply 1,000 kits to the King County Sheriff’s Department, so that everyone on patrol will have one. The longer officers can stay in the field after a disaster, the better for everyone, Guite said. That was another lesson learned from New Orleans.

They’ve partnered with Symetra Financial in Bellevue to put three thousand kits in low-income schools next year.

“We work hard to put our product into the community at no cost,” he said.

What they do is social entrepreneurship. Guite hopes it gets other businesses thinking more about the community, especially children. “Corporate America has to accept responsibility for the next generation of workers.”

The country needs to have its sharpest people helping its neediest citizens. Guite and crew set an example worth following — two examples actually. I’m getting a kit, and putting another one on my giving list.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.