Life was good … until it wasn’t.
Success was plentiful … until it was scarce.
The future looked sunny … until the fog rolled in.
The global coronavirus pandemic spread illness and death around the world, and North Carolina was not spared. Covid-19 changed everything, even in serene Surry County.
The virus forced local businesses to adapt or perish. Some hunkered down. Some threw in the towel. And at least two saw an opportunity to do some good.
The pandemic pivots of Xtreme! Marketing in Pilot Mountain and United Sewing Automation in Mount Airy not only enabled the companies to survive but have helped people in the process.
Both companies saw an alarming shortage of medical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and decided to adapt their businesses to do something about it.
“March seems like so long ago,” says Ben Webb, co-founder of United Sewing. “I’ve learned something every day while operating in this new time. The lessons are everywhere. You learn how to operate a factory with people who you need to keep safe. You’ve got to protect your workforce, while at the same time trying to do business and figuring out how to operate within space restrictions with people properly distanced. It’s just a different time.”
Webb pauses a moment, thinking over the turbulent year that was.
“Every day,” he says at last, “you’re figuring out a way to overcome a challenge that Covid has created.”
Fifteen miles away, Xtreme’s founder and CEO John Tarn remembers his own Covid lessons and harbors one regret.
“We had right around 20 employees before the pandemic. We went down to nine or 10,” Tarn says. “We learned a lesson that you’ve got to pivot with that quicker. But we’re building back now, and we’ve hired some of our people back, getting back to where we need to be. … We’re going to grow. When we come through this on the other side, we’re going to add more (employees) than before.”
The pandemic hit Tarn’s business like an unblocked linebacker.
Xtreme! Marketing is in the business of making other businesses look good. From its headquarters on East Main Street in Pilot Mountain, the company works for clients the likes of Coca-Cola, the PGA Tour, Jack Daniel’s, Korbel, and Dell.
Xtreme! can do things as simple as printing business cards and as complicated as custom fabrication and fancy vehicle wraps.
“We’re a holistic marketing company, and 99 percent of what we do is done in-house,” Tarn says. When companies come to Xtreme! needing, say, business cards, “we can also supply everything else they might need. Say we’re going to a trade show and they need special rack cards or pamphlets, we can produce them and bring them with us. And we can fabricate a custom display. And they don’t have to worry about shipping any of it, because we can do that ourselves.”
One of the company’s specialties is using lasers to do custom engraving on materials including metal, wood, plastic, or plexiglass.
The lasers became the source of Xtreme’s PPE pivot.
“Covid affected us in a big way. Right off the bat, we lost about 250 events nationwide,” Tarn says. “That cut deeply into our top line. But then we got the idea to produce PPE. We made face shields and custom sneeze guards, all done on our lasers.”
In the early days of the pivot, Xtreme! donated 800 face shields to local businesses that needed them. Then the company started making another version of the face shields that could be mass-produced and sold, a transparent plastic screen resembling a clear welder’s mask.
Xtreme! didn’t need to invest in additional equipment, Tarn says, but rather find a source for the plastic – a company in Connecticut came through. It programmed its own existing lasers to make the shields.
“We have an in-house design team,” he says. “Depending on the day, we’ll have four or five designers rolling full-time, designing everything we need and also coming up with designs for our clients – trade-show displays, graphics, anything you can think of.”
Tarn’s company always leaned heavily on social media, and that’s become even important during the pandemic. And he has used his platforms to help promote other Pilot Mountain businesses during these lean times.
“I’ve learned several lessons during this pandemic,” Tarn says. “No. 1, speed is of the essence. You’ve got to pivot quickly. When we lost all those trade-show displays, we pivoted immediately – not only to the PPE but also to expanding our expedited shipping.”
His brand ambassadors couldn’t visit trade shows anymore, but it redirected its fleet of trucks and Sprinter vans to do expedited shipping around the country.
“All the while, we’re still preparing for when trade shows start to open back up.”
The pandemic has also been a chance to reflect and reevaluate.
“You know, this has allowed us to go more local, whereas we were more national before, working with multi-billion-dollar companies around the country,” Tarn says. “We’ve had to focus more local, and we’ve realized how important that is. We’re tied tightly to our community and local partnerships.
“We’ve also realized the power of marketing. When most people are laying back in a crisis, we decided to put more money into our marketing, our branding, our promotions. We’ve doubled down on that. We were building a strong sales force prior to Covid, and the pandemic messed us up. But we’re back to investing in our sales team now.”
In the early days of the pandemic, United Sewing Automation co-founders Ben Webb, Rob Roach, and Brad Ballentine never expected their business to revolve around disposable medical-grade surgical masks.
Webb already had a successful business with Fish Hippie and its apparel line when they opened United Sewing next door.
“With Fish Hippie, everything was rockin’ and rollin’, and life was good,” Webb says. “And then we started experiencing a malaise in things earlier in 2019 for the product that was to be landing in the spring of 2020. We saw some things coming up on the horizon, but we really didn’t think too much about it. And then, the pandemic hit.”
Webb said the founders were just starting to figure out how to pivot the business in dealing with changing economies.
“We went to our supplier network to see if we could start sourcing PPE. Of course, it was all produced overseas, but we were able to find some quality manufacturers and we were able to help out several hospitals.”
But the partners were disappointed with the overseas goods. Some of the PPE came with dubious documentation.
“The amount of fraudulent test data we saw, well, it made you wonder. Are these goods real?” Webb says. “They were sending in just really questionable supporting information. And our frontline responders are putting their lives on the line wearing this stuff. Did we really want to put our name behind those products when we couldn’t verify they would perform like they were supposed to? No, we didn’t.”
Assuring that health care providers were protected was a priority.
“They need to have confidence,” Webb said. “They need to know when they purchase something from us that the product is safe and the product is right and will provide the level of protection they need. We can help with that.”
United Sewing could help by doing the work itself. The company found and bought equipment to produce its own ASTM Level 3 three-ply surgical masks, disposable masks rated over 99 percent effective at bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE) and particle filtration efficiency (PFE) protection.
It makes masks locally, with raw materials from the Carolinas, Georgia, Indiana, and Connecticut.
“The reliance on foreign-made goods was an eye-opener for me,” Roach says. “It was crazy to me to see the reliance on Asian-made medical equipment, from face masks to gloves to gowns. Our frontline workers in our hospital systems and state departments, they were struggling to find well-vetted, quality products in March, April and May. … It was shocking, breathtaking to me to see there was no domestic manufacturer of PPE outside of a couple mom-and-pop shops. There was no one pumping out millions of masks or gloves or gowns to meet the need.”
United Sewing wasn’t an overnight success. It took time to get registered with the FDA, more time for testing and certifications. March turned to April, then May, then June before the company was fully operational and made its first delivery in July.
North Carolina came first, and eventually, the company expanded deliveries across the country.
“We did it the right way,” Webb says. “We didn’t create this as a flash in the pan business just to answer the pandemic. We’re creating a long-term business that’s here to support all of our hospitals and government agencies for a long time to come. We started this as quickly as we could, but the focus was on making sure our foundation was built correctly.”
“Ultimately, we want our products to symbolize accessibility for everyone in the country who needs a face mask, no matter their living situation or work environment.” — Rob Roach
United Sewing employs about 50 people, with 20 people working first and second shifts in its factory. The company produces has the capacity to produce 1 million masks per week, sending them to hospitals as far away as Washington state and Maine, as well as several Veterans Administration medical facilities.
A 10-pack of masks costs $6.99, and the company offers bulk discounts as well as a subscription service that cuts the cost to around 52 cents per mask. The company in January launched a wholesale website to streamline bulk ordering for business customers. It then in February launched a “One-for-One” donation campaign that will provide up to 10 million free masks to adults and children in high exposure living and work settings nationally.
“Ultimately, we want our products to symbolize accessibility for everyone in the country who needs a face mask, no matter their living situation or work environment,” Roach said. “From health care workers to teachers, to custodians, or those living in shared or temporary housing, we want every American to have the same standard of protection USA’s masks uniquely offer.”
The goal is to be a profitable business while meeting a need.
“We’re not a nonprofit. We’re in business to make money,” Roach says. “But we’re also here to answer the call and provide a high-quality good for fellow North Carolinians and fellow Americans. It hit home for us: Why are we getting these masks from overseas? And we were seeing … so much fraud in the marketplace. Well, we wanted to do things the right way. We wanted to keep people truly safe, and maybe make some money along the way. It was a good fit.”