by Jeff Moravec
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on corners of the specialty textiles industry that normally operate in the background of daily life. Terms like “N95” and “meltblown” are in the headlines. Restaurants are reopening under event tents. Vinyl dividers are popping up everywhere businesses meet their customers.
But textiles aren’t the only essential component of personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers on the front lines of the pandemic, not to mention the products that are making our public lives safer. Companies that manufacture and supply fasteners, bindings, trim and elastic have played a critical role as well, and they’ve faced their own challenges in remaining operational and profitable.
There is no one-size-fits-all story, but there are many stories highlighting the value of dedicated employees, of long-term partnerships that can be counted on in a crisis, and of the ability to pivot quickly for the right opportunity—along with the restraint to avoid a wholesale shift that could leave a company vulnerable when a new demand drops off.
Ingenuity—and long nights
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride,” says Coleman Conneely, one of the owners of Granat Industries Inc., a fasteners supplier based in Elk Grove Village, Ill. “When the governor decided to shut down the state on March 20, we didn’t even know if we were going to be considered an essential business. We were in a state of shock as we tried to plan for the immediate future. Up until now, we never had plans for how to cope with a possible shutdown or pandemic.”
Granat, which has been in business since 1922, was allowed to stay open, but not all of its customers were as fortunate. “About a third of our clients closed down for a period of time,” Conneely explains. “Sadly, many of them had outbreaks in their own manufacturing plants, so even though they were essential, they invested the time to shut down their facilities in
an effort to stop spreading the disease and protect their employees.”
Fairly quickly, however, a number of Granat customers began doing what many companies around the country and the world were doing—shifting their business to manufacture PPE.
“We started getting a ton of phone calls,” Conneely says. “Once that happened, we just pivoted and began catering to these new inquiries, most of which were about elastic for face masks, and some were for quite large orders. We ended up selling over a million yards of elastic in a very short period of time.”
The hardest part, not surprisingly, was sourcing the elastic, which virtually overnight became an extremely valuable commodity worldwide.
“It was very hard trying to find it from our regular suppliers domestically, and in a couple of days we realized it was basically impossible,” Conneely says. “But we were quickly able to place some rather large orders overseas, although it cost us $150,000 in air freight.
“Without our supplier in South Korea, who we had worked with for close to 20 years, there would have been no way in the world we could have filled elastic orders,” he adds. “Some of the largest companies in the world were ahead of us for the production from U.S. mills.”
Besides elastic, an increase in demand for Velcro®, plastic hardware and buckles helped Granat offset the decline in its regular business, according to Conneely. “We caught a couple of nice breaks along the way,” he says. “Fortunately, our sales staff was truly amazing, as they all worked very hard on challenging, stressful transactions with a lot of pressure. None of us will ever forget that six-week stretch.”
In the early days of the pandemic, everything was about timing, Conneely says. “If you were an hour late, an opportunity would pass you by. It all required a lot of ingenuity, a lot of late nights, and finding creative ways to tackle these unique business opportunities. We just had to dig down deep inside and make it happen.”
New market: nose stays
SX Industries Inc., a Stoughton, Mass., manufacturing company with a focus on metal stamping, die casting, injection molded nylon and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic, learned firsthand what can happen in a pandemic. Early on, nine of its 60-plus employees tested positive for COVID-19, including one who had to be hospitalized, forcing the company to temporarily shut down its manufacturing, according to Lindsay Fink, one of SX’s owners.
“Everyone recovered, and things have been under control, but these are crazy times,” Fink says.
On the other hand, he says, the company was fortunate to be able to pivot quickly into supplying products for PPE. SX manufactures brass eyelets and grommets, and when nearby New Balance began planning a shift from sneakers to mask production, the footwear manufacturer reached out to see if SX could help supply mask nose stays.
“They needed a special kind of soft brass for the nose stays that is not off the shelf, and we happened to have the right lengths and we had it in stock,” Fink says. “We cut them a hand sample on Monday at noon; somebody picked up the samples, sewed them into a prototype mask and drove it to the hospital that needed the masks for approval. New Balance got it approved and they picked up production next day at noon. It was amazing.”
SX has since “sold millions” of the nose stays, according to Fink, to about
40 different customers. And while he says the demand has leveled off, he expects the nose stays to be a significant product for the company for some time.
Staying the course
Dan Bourget, president of Custom Metal Crafters Inc. (CMC), Newington, Conn., says his company has not changed its product line in response to the pandemic, but an evolving mix of customers has nevertheless helped the business continue to operate.
“We make the same things we’ve always made,” Bourget explains. “We have a standard product line. I’ve had a few people suggest that we should make this, and we should make that, but so far no one has committed to a custom order.”
After a lull at the beginning of the pandemic when some of its customers closed down, CMC experienced a pickup in business when different companies came in because of the pandemic, he says. “An outdoor structure company was making field hospital tents, so they needed hardware for tie-down straps,” Bourget says. “Another company involved in ventilators needed snaps for carrying straps. Business shifted.”
Ever since hardware manufacturing moved largely offshore, companies such as CMC have been niche manufacturers, making it difficult to compete on price alone, according to Bourget. “But our orders related to COVID-19 are back to the old days,” he says. “The volumes are substantial, and everyone wants them right away. So many overseas manufacturers were shut down or couldn’t get their products here fast enough. And customers want their parts made in the USA. That’s where we come in.”
And while COVID-related product sales have slowed, Bourget says, the company’s traditional customers are beginning to reopen, and business is improving.
“We’re not setting any records, but we’re still here and still in business,” says Aaron Krouse, owner and chief operating officer of Lowy Enterprises Inc. in Rancho Dominguez, Calif. The company distributes webbing, fasteners, soft goods and hot cutters.
When the pandemic shutdown was announced, Krouse says he wasn’t sure if Lowy would be considered an essential business. “But our customers quickly told us we were,” he says. “We support law enforcement, the military, first responders … so we stayed open.”
On the first day of the lockdown, Lowy began getting calls for elastic. “We sell elastics, but we don’t really carry elastic for masks and things like that, so we got into high gear and sourced it,” he says. “For a solid six to eight weeks, all we heard from was customers who wanted to make masks.”
Krouse was grateful for the opportunity, but he says he was careful from the beginning not to overestimate the time the business window would be open. “That business has basically died now,” he says. “I’m glad we didn’t jump into that whole hog and end up stuck with a million yards of elastic or other materials. We considered buying more, but we didn’t, and I’m glad.”
Nicole Cacciatori, vice president of Batz Corp., a metal hardware manufacturer and supplier in Prattsville, Ark., says the pandemic has affected her company in some unexpected ways. It’s not surprising, she says, that sales of the snap hooks Batz sells by “the tens of thousands” to a batting cage maker have come to a standstill.
However, the buckles it sells that are used to make dog collars are a different story. “Those sales have probably doubled,” she says. “There’s been a huge spike in online business in the pet industry. People are off work; they have more time to shop online and to spend time with their pets.”
Gary Grewal, president and CEO of American Plastics, Tracy, Calif., a manufacturer of fastening products and trim, knew his company should be in the “essential” category when California issued a statewide “shelter in place” order—after all, the company carries materials that go into the production of face masks, protective shields, medical gowns and other PPE products.
Still, says Grewal, with all the uncertainty surrounding the shutdown, he didn’t want to take any chances. “So, I wrote to our customers and asked them to send us letters, so if there were any questions, we could show that we are essential,” he explains. “They did, but then no one ever came around to ask.”
That’s probably just as well. Grewal says that in the 34 years since he started the company, “We’ve never been this busy. Never.”
It was all about the elastic. As American Plastics customers shifted to making face masks, they turned to the company for elastic, which quickly ran out.
“We have our factories that we purchase from, but they said, ‘We are swamped; we cannot produce anything,’ but I have a factory in India that was able to provide us with about 700,000 yards, which we brought in by air,” he says.
It was the first of about eight shipments, which weren’t easy to arrange. “India was in lockdown, so they had to get special permission from the local government to take the material to the airport,” says Grewal.
Besides “millions of yards of elastic,” Grewal says the company has also been supplying webbing, cord lock and other components for PPE. He says he paid particular attention to making sure the company was pricing the elastic fairly.
“We kept the same price we’d been charging and just added the freight cost to it,” he explains. “People were saying, ‘You’re not charging enough,’ but I would not feel right about charging more. Right now, it is about taking care of the customer, helping our country and helping the people who are suffering. That’s what it’s all about.”
Grewal also made sure to get elastic to as many of his customers as possible. “Customers would say they wanted 500,000 yards, and I would tell them no,” he says. “We need to be able to give it to every customer who needs it. Small orders might not have been as efficient, but they were important too. My warehouse people asked, ‘Why are were selling one spool of 150 yards?’ but I said if someone wants just one spool, that’s fine.”
American Plastics also donated elastic to customers who were giving away masks to first responders. “That was nice for our employees,” he says. “They feel they are helping people, helping make products that save lives. One of our employees said, ‘I feel proud, we are doing essential work.’”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.