Business Unusual

There’s a Shortage of PPE. These Small Businesses Pivoted to Fill the Gap

Small businesses across the country are pivoting to address the PPE shortage. From face masks to intubation shields, these SMBs are stepping up.

Kevin Hundal made an agonizing choice — a choice small business leaders across the country can relate to.

The CEO of Atrend, a manufacturer of audio and electronic equipment outside Chicago, Illinois, saw the writing on the wall and laid off 25% of his workforce.

“The challenge I put to my team is ‘we gotta work our asses off to get these guys back to work,’” Hundal said. “What could we do to bring our people back and do something good for humanity?”

The answer? Face shields for healthcare workers. And that decision is what allowed Hundal to bring all his employees back to work.

Atrend is just one of many small businesses across the country pivoting to producing personal protective equipment (called PPE for short). In doing so, they’re helping to fill a gap of equipment for medical workers, first responders and essential workers as the coronavirus pandemic continues to infect thousands. And in the process, they’re continuing to keep workers busy, and in some cases even hiring, as the economy sputters due to lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders.

From camping gear makers to the producers of furniture, small businesses are tapping into their existing supply chains and talent pool to mass produce PPE. We’re highlighting businesses who are stepping up to produce PPE during the crisis. If you’re a small business that has pivoted to producing PPE and want to be included, please contact us at [email protected].

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From Audio Equipment to Face Shields

Business: Atrend USA

Industry: Audio equipment manufacturer and distributor

Number of employees: 22

Location: Elk Grove Village, IL

PPE Produced: Face shields and protective barriers

Atrend pivoted in 5 days to produce face shields and protective barriers. It’s sold at least 20,000 face shields and around 500 barriers to date, according to CEO Kevin Hundal.

Kevin Hundal, CEO: “As COVID hit, we pivoted to PPE: Face shields, face masks and protective barriers. We manufacture here in the United States and have a high-tech machine that cuts wood and plastics. We also had plastic in stock. We had lay off about 25% of our folks. It was a painful decision but we had to make that decision. The challenge I put to my team is ‘we gotta work our asses off to get these guys back to work.’ What could we do to bring our people back and do something good for humanity?’ We put our heads together and came up with products we could manufacture. I’m glad to say that it took off and we were able to bring back 100% of our workforce within a week of laying them off.”

From Camping Gear to Counter Guards

Business: SylvanSport

Industry: Camping equipment

Number of employees: 25

Location: Brevard, NC

PPE Produced: Face shields, foot-activated door openers and counter guards

SylvanSport is primarily a maker of camping equipment such as tents and pop-up campers. But the company has been busy making multiple forms of PPE.

Kara Errickson, Creative Director: “I think first and foremost, as the crisis was developing, the original conversations we were having is ‘oh my gosh, how can we help?’ The first inclination was we really need to do something to not sit idle. Tom [the founder] has assembled a team of engineers, designers and makers. Those were the early conversations. Tom had a business previously in manufacturing of FDA medical devices. We started first looking to first responders: healthcare organizations, organizations of doctors and nurses. Slowly we’ve begun to widen the research. We had a lot more inquiries from people we had never even thought of. That’s how the product line evolved.”

From Window Shades to Face Shields

Business: Halcyon Shades

Industry: Window shade manufacturing

Number of employees: N/A

Location: University City, MO

PPE Produced: Face shields

The specialty of Halcyon Shades are shades for windows, especially for large commercial properties. But the company is quickly producing face shields. The company is as many as 15,000 shields a week but they’re immediately selling out, according to CEO Chris Lozano. They plan to produce as many as 200,000 a month by June.

Chris Lozano, CEO: “We started to watch the markets tighten and supply chains tense. I started to see a lot of things I did not like. We’ve always been a very diversified company from a supply chain standard. We sat everybody down on a Thursday. I said, ‘we have a nice facility, talented workforce, equipment that cuts. What can we make to continue the fight against COVID-19? What can we make that makes us essential workers?’ One of my workers pulled up a picture of a face shield. He showed me a picture, immediately, I knew that we could do it. We have machinery for cutting it. I’ve hired 15 people since we started the effort. We’re hiring almost as fast as I onboard people.”

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From Packaging to Aerosol Intubation Boxes

Business: Maryland Thermoform

Industry: Manufacturing packaging of products

Number of employees: 60

Location: Baltimore, MD

PPE Produced: Face shields and aerosol intubation boxes

Thermoforming is the product of this business, which took the form of medical trays, packaging for cosmetics and even doors to police cars. But the business is focusing on producing face shields and aerosol boxes for intubation procedures. The company has donated thousands of face shields to medical workers, according to VP of Operations Carl Livesay.

Carl Livesay, VP Operations: “We had a leadership meeting. We saw the market being disrupted beginning in early February. Lead times for materials was increasing. Prices were increasing. We buy all domestic material, and availability of domestic material was eroding rapidly. That was largely because the big guys, the mega companies. They bought foreign material. When that stuff all got shut down at the borders, they ended up buying all the available capacity in the domestic market and that pinched the smaller guys. We’re under 100 employees. We saw that coming. We also saw sales starting to erode, orders getting pushed out. Customers that we were really small, the small office home office candlemakers, a lot of them were struggling. They stopped paying their bills. We were in distress from a sales standpoint so we looked inward. We sat down and we said, ‘what can we offer to help in this fight against this pandemic?’ We did some research. What do people need the most of and what’s in our wheelhouse? We identified the face shields. We can spit those things out like nobody’s business. It’s priced to be disposable and designed to last a few months. It’s cleanable.”

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From Sunglasses to Safety Goggles

Business: Blenders Eyewear

Industry: Eyewear for skiing and sun glasses

Number of employees: 32

Location: San Diego, CA

PPE Produced: Safety goggles for medical workers

In the past, you might see Blenders Eyewear products on the ski slopes. But the company is producing safety goggles for medical workers with the first 10,000 going to San Diego hospitals and UCLA, according to CEO Chase Fisher.

Chase Fisher, CEO: We talked to our manufacturer and ran the idea by them. We just kind of pushed our way through and sidelined sunglasses for safety goggles. We were able to do it in 5 days. Shipping is very long. We were able to reach out to local to local hospitals in San Diego as well as LA to bring over 10k pairs. Shipping is about 10-12 days. That’s been the biggest challenge has been on the logistics side because customs is very backed up with this. We’ve been dealing with it day in and day out. We’ve been working very closely with our broker to manage our shipments. The first production run is a donation and  for the whole month of April, we’re doing a portion of sales go directly to Direct Relief. Our goal is to raise $100k for them.”

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From Furniture to Face Masks

Business: Something Vintage Rentals

Industry: Furniture rentals for events

Number of employees: 27

Location: Temple Hills, MD

PPE Produced: Face masks

Typically, you’d call Something Vintage Rentals when you needed furniture for your wedding. But the business is paying workers to mass produce face masks. The business has sold 3,000 masks to date, according to owner Dawn Crothers.

Dawn Crothers, Owner: “We saw the need and we had the skillset and logistics knowledge to do it. At first we started masks to donate and we have a huge network of volunteers to make masks. We’ve already donated 2,000. Our goal is 3,000. We had our seamstresses along with 100 volunteers. Lately we’ve been getting requests from companies to make them. They need for their staff to continue operating, like cleaners in a hospital. We have turned to doing that as well. We’re still doing the donations, but we’re also making them to sell to companies in large quantities.”

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From Props to Face Shields

Business: Custom 3D Stuff

Industry: 3D fabrication for props, jewelry and other items

Number of employees: 1

Location: Baltimore, MD

PPE Produced: Face shields

Todd Blatt produces large objects, like film props, and small objects, like earrings, using fabrication. He’s now producing face shields that he either donates or sells at cost.

Todd Blatt, Owner: “I had extra time with my business, so I said let me do this. We have this sculpture project called We the Builders. It’s like a 3D printed distributed network. We started telling them, you can print these headbands and our partner at Open Workers. They are gonna do assembly for them. We started a joint effort called MD Makers United. We are selling them at cost to local area medical professionals. We’re cutting them out with the laser that’s cutting the plastic. We have two designs. One is assembled using plastic clothing snaps. We’ve made about 1,600 of the laser cut kind with the snaps. Just started production of the other face shield. One that’s reusable, one’s meant to be one-time use.”

Susan Johnston Taylor provided reporting for this article.

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