Lit Up for Safety

Nite Beams’ products keep workers visible in the dark
Michael “Tonto” Alexander stands amid the many lighted safety products his company creates and sells.

© 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

One evening in 2008, Michael “Tonto” Alexander was driving in his Portage neighborhood when, for the third time in as many months, he nearly hit a group of runners he couldn’t see. The next morning he met his buddies at Panera Bread in Portage, and, as fate would have it, this same group of runners also came in. He decided to talk with them, and it was a chat that ultimately launched Alexander’s business: Nite Beams, which makes high-visibility, LED (light-emitting diode), weatherproof safety products.

“Why aren’t you wearing something that’s going to light you up?” the 71-year old Alexander recalls asking the runners.

One runner replied they would if something like that existed. At the time, the group was relying on reflective tape and red bicycle clips attached to their clothing. An idea popped into Alexander’s head, and for the next two weeks he did research.

“I drove to every sporting goods store and every running store that I thought would sell a product that I had in my mind, and none of them had it,” he says. “So I created it.”

Saving runners’ lives

Alexander developed a lightweight armband with LED lights that are visible for up to a quarter of a mile in the dark. After perfecting his prototype, he ordered $1,800 worth of the armbands, named his company Nite Beams, and then met with his attorney at a restaurant for dinner. With six armbands lit up on the table, he found that other diners instantly took notice.

“Everybody was coming over,” Alexander says. “They all wanted to buy them right there.”

Alexander then took his product to a marathon near Jacksonville, Florida, where he set up a black tent to simulate darkness and turned on about 200 armbands. A line of runners quickly formed to make purchases. From there, demand only grew, and Alexander began selling the armbands online, through retailers across the U.S. and Costa Rica, and at expos for marathons.

And armbands were only the beginning. Alexander expanded into LED dog leashes and collars for runners’ dogs, then moved on to create a line of highway safety apparel. In 2016, the company, which has three employees, set up shop on Ninth Street in Oshtemo Township and most of the manufacturing of its products is done in China.

Lighting up highway workers

He wasn’t content creating safety products for just runners and dogs when he knew other individuals needed to be visible at night, too: police officers, tow truck drivers and road crew workers on highways and roads. So he created a slew of products to meet their needs, including Nite Beams’ HiViz LED Reflective Vests With LED Lights, HiViz LED Rain Jackets and Rain Bibs, and HiViz LED 50 Below Arctic Jackets, which are all powered by U.S.B. rechargeable battery packs.

“People ask, ‘Are you an engineer?’ and I say, ‘No, I’m a “visioneer.”’ I just visualize things, and then I figure out how to make it.”

Nite Beams’ highway safety apparel has caught on quickly — so quickly that Alexander needed to make it his focus. He sold the running portion of the business to another company in October 2017 and the pet division in October 2018 to Hyper-Pet LLC, based in Wichita, Kansas. Nite Beams’ current products are sold online and at some police supply stores and distributed by companies such as Carrier & Gable, in Farmington Hills, and Give ’Em a Brake, in Grandville. Nite Beams also works directly with highway and law enforcement agencies.

“Some prefer to work directly with us,” Alexander says, noting that this interaction provides great insight and feedback on the company’s products.

Nite Beams’ products are being bought by law enforcement agencies across the country, such as the Michigan State Police, and in New Orleans and Minneapolis, which recently increased its order of Nite Beams’ Body Alert Flashing Lights and additional products after an officer was struck in a hit-and-run collision, Alexander says.

“What we do is proactive, not reactive,” Alexander explains. “We’re sending beams into the darkness.”

In 2016, the Nite Beams HiViz Reflective Vest With LED Lights won the Innovation Award from the American Traffic Safety Services Association in recognition of product innovation for road safety. The vest stays lit 30 hours in flashing mode and 15 hours in constantly on mode.

“It will get them through a couple of shifts and they’ll plug it in for an hour and, boom, they’re good to go,” Alexander says.

The U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, National Guard and NASA are also Nite Beams customers, and the U.S. Air Force and NASA officials invited Alexander to Edwards Air Force Base, in California, to give a presentation. Among the products they latched onto was Nite Beams’ Hands-Free Wristlights.

“You have total hands-free lighting when you’re working in tight spots,” Alexander says.

He has more ideas in development. And if a product doesn’t work out? It’s a lesson and an opportunity to improve and do better, he says.

“I will roll the dice, believe me,” he says.

His gamble paid off with Nite Beams — and not only because he makes a living from the business.

“Most important is, when I have passed to the spirit world, our products will still be preventing accidents and saving lives,” he says. “It doesn’t get any better.”

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There’s a question that people ask Nite Beams founder and owner Michael “Tonto” Alexander all the time: What’s with the nickname Tonto?

It turns out the nickname relates to Alexander’s Native American heritage — Tonto, as many people know, is the name of a fictional Native American character who was the Lone Ranger’s companion.

Alexander, who was born in Roswell, New Mexico, is a member of the Apache tribe and a citizen of the Apache Nation. Black-and-white photographs of his mother, aunt and uncle as well as his grandfather’s military records from serving as an Indian scout in the U.S. Cavalry adorn the wall behind Alexander’s desk at his company’s headquarters in Oshtemo.

Alexander’s nickname, which some people might not like but which he says has been good for him, came about via his golfing connections.

He started caddying at the age of 7, when he lived two blocks from a municipal golf course, and he also played golf there, winning youth tournaments by the time he was 10. He went on to win many tournaments, and a photograph in his office of him with Jack Nicklaus was shot on the course where Alexander acquired his nickname.

“Forty-seven years ago one of the pros called me ‘Tonto,’” he says, and the name stuck. But it wasn’t until Alexander played in a tournament against Kalamazoo’s Don Seelye and the pair became friends that the nickname was cemented. In 1978, when Alexander went to work for Seelye Auto Group, Seelye suggested he put the name “Tonto” on his business cards because people would always remember it.

“Some of the greatest advice I ever got,” Alexander says.