Helping In a Crisis
By John C. Stevenson
Local business owner David Raad remembers well the first week in March, when, as he was traveling home from a business function, he began to see dozens of upcoming events he was scheduled to attend being canceled because of Covid-19.
"I said to myself, this is going to be substantial - what can I do to help," he recalled recently.
It didn't take long for Raad to discover the answer to his question. The founder and CEO of Powdersville-based Six & Twenty Distillery, Raad watched as the national economy ground to a crawl in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic that was sweeping the nation and the world. He saw bars he had forged relationships with shuttered, putting hundreds of local service-industry workers suddenly out of their jobs.
He saw stores seemingly overnight sell out of essentials such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and even many basic food items.
And he saw a way that Six & Twenty could help. When he opened Six & Twenty, Raad said, he had taken the extra step of securing a license for denaturing alcohol, a poisonous form of alcohol that's a far cry from the potable spirits for which Six & Twenty has become known.
"I had this obscure license, and I thought, 'I'm about to get a lot of telephone calls,'" he said. "I know people are going to want denatured alcohol."
The immediate shortages proved Raad's instincts correct.
"They moved quickly in (South Carolina). The Department of Transportation started burning the phone lines up," Raad said. "They asked about making hand sanitizers, so we got to work."
To satisfy the demand, Raad said he had employees producing two batches of denatured alcohol daily that was earmarked for hand sanitizer.
When he needed to add labor, Raad turned to locals whose service-industry jobs had evaporated.
"Because of our relationships in the community, we knew who to ask," he said. "We'd feed them lunch, and we'd pay them at the end of the day. It helped those guys, and it helped bring us all together."
Raad's Six & Twenty Distillery was just one of the many businesses around the Palmetto State that pitched in in a variety of ways to help provide some measure of relief from the pandemic. And as the nation's businesses work to reopen the economy, many of the companies that have worked to fill new needs are weighing whether to return "normal" production, and what the "new normal" might look like for them.
The hand sanitizer produced by Six & Twenty, as well as by other distilleries in the state, helped prevent the situation in South Carolina from getting even worse than it did. Raad recalled that the Six & Twenty team had to work throughout the night one evening in March to produce enough product for the State Department of Corrections, which faced potential turmoil as prisons around the state ran out of hand sanitizer.
When asked about the future, Raad said Six & Twenty is still producing hand sanitizer for the state, and continues to provide it to local bars and restaurants as well.
"We're giving it out to any local businesses that need it," he said. "We're still giving it away at our still house when people ask for it."
As for the future, Raad said he's tracking demand, and while he said he hopes to go back to producing only spirits for drinking, "we've told everyone that if you need (sanitizer) we will have it."
From Uniform Fabrics to PPE
In nearby Greenwood, Greenwood Mills President and CEO Jay Self said that as concerns quickly rose about the availability of personal protection equipment such as gowns and masks, he began to wonder how Greenwood Mills could help.
"At the same time our blue jean business was dropping off, and I said it would be great if we could do that (produce PPE), but it was different materials - there was a lot of doubt in my mind if we could do it," he recalled.
Once known for making denim fabric, Self explained that over the decades, the mill has expanded into other areas, including sewing garments and laundering materials for a pre-washed look, as well as producing high-tech fabrics for use in specially apparel such as fireproof clothing. In addition, Greenwood Mills is the largest weaver of uniform fabrics for the U.S. military, Self said.
Self said he didn't even know for sure whether there would be a demand for PPE if Greenwood Mills opted to produce safety equipment.
"Then I got a call from the local hospital here," he said. "They wanted to ask if we could do it, and I said, well maybe there is a little demand here."
A prototype for a simple mask was quickly produced at one of Greenwood Mills' sewing plants in Mexico.
When the sample arrived in Greenwood, Self said he told hospital leaders that the masks did have limitations.
"We said we don't have the ability to make the N95 (masks), this is just to give you a piece of cloth covering your face," Self said he explained, "and (the hospital representative) said ˜perfect - we'll take 5,000 of them.'"
The hospital representative explained that the cloth masks would allow the hospital to conserve the N95 masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since endorsed cloth facial coverings like those made by Greenwood Mills for a number of uses. According to the CDC, cloth masks "may slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others."
Self said demand continued to grow after a couple of pictures of the masks were posted to social media.
"The phone went off the hook," he said. "So, our thought process was â€˜how can we quickly address this,' so we looked at the fabric inventory we had and the fabric we could get our hands on quickly."
Self said the textile maker went with the material normally used to make the pockets of blue jeans, then was able to utilize its laundry facility to apply a water-repellent finish to both gowns and masks: "It was about what we could do well and quickly," he said.
Now the company has even added a page to its website to promote sales of its PPE masks and gowns (greenwoodmillsppe.com).
Self said most of the PPE produced by Greenwood Mills has been sold to the public for "general use," although he said Greenwood Mills has also competed for business from federal agencies such as FEMA.
As for the future, Self said whether Greenwood Mills continues to produce PPE depends on the market.
"We'll see what kind of staying power there is," he said. "The tide's still coming in; when the tide turns, hoefully we'll still have our feet in the water."
A Team Effort
Other companies around South Carolina have worked with a host of state agencies to ensure the continued delivery of equipment vital to the fight to save lives from Covid-19. Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp., located in West Columbia, worked with the S.C. Ports Authority to ensure it had the necessary machinery to continue to produce and package its products, including sterile respiratory medication.
Company President and CEO Lou Kennedy said in the release that Nephron built a good relationship with the Ports Authority during the company's move from its original home in Florida to South Carolina. That relationship would only become more valuable as global shipping grew tricky in the wake of the pandemic.
Among the products Nephron was depending on receiving was automated equipment, manufactured in Switzerland, that would help its workers quickly label, package and ship products such as the inhalation solutions and bronchodilators the company makes.
"I reached out (to SC Ports' COO Barbara Melvin) to see what the situation was going to be like in getting these pieces of equipment," Kennedy said in the release. "That equipment, which was four giant containers, arrived to the DOT at 9 a.m. (April 16) all because of two great South Carolina partners - UPS and its hub that's located one exit from me, and the Ports Authority.
"All of these drugs that are packaged will go to benefit speedier to-market products for patients with Covid-19," Kennedy continued. "This is front-line equipment that we need to get our products to market quicker."
Not surprisingly, Nephron has seen a rapid growth in demand for many of its products due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kennedy said March saw a 141 percent increase in the doses of inhalation solutions Nephron typically produces a month, according to the release.
The company also recently donated 50 liters of its hand sanitizer to the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, according to the release.
As more businesses begin to reopen and some states are registering increases in Covid-19 cases, Kurt Orlofski is concerned that, moving forward, the U.S. must maintain adequate stockpiles of a wide range of OTC and prescription drugs. Orlofski is CEO of Greenville-based Pharmaceutical Associates Inc., a leading provider of liquid medications in the United States.
PAI distributes a variety of liquid medications in unit-dose packages, which Orlofski explained is a preferred method for providing medication to patients in a wide range of health care settings, including hospitals and nursing homes. Orlofski said PAI has always practiced preparedness by "proactively" stocking eight to 12 weeks of products, which he said has helped the company weather the crisis successfully to date.
He's now urging government and businesses to work together to ensure adequate supplies of critical drugs moving forward.
"The shortages really weren't that bad - we didn't have a single backorder," he said. "There was some shortage in the market ... the problem is that drugs expire. You can't build them and put them on a shelf and use them 10 years later. They're good for anywhere from 12 to 24 months, and then you have to throw them away and start all over again.
"I do think that a larger percentage of our drug supply ... must be made locally so that in times of need we can turn it on and get the product to the people," he continued. "I do believe this isn't a problem that the government can solve on its own or the industry can solve on its own. I think that, to the extent that it is a problem, to the extent that we want a better system going forward, it's really going to require cooperation and leadership between the industry and health care practitioners. Drug manufacturers, the government and the health care system really need to come together on this thing and certainly, in a bipartisan way, try to figure out what we want the future to look like and what's to be learned from Covid-19. It's going to take involvement and commitment from all the parties."
Small businesses can utilize digital marketing to increase relevancy, visibility during crisis
By John C. Stevenson
Getting back to the business of business means different things for different companies. While large concerns often have the deep pockets to weather a crisis, smaller businesses generally aren't as fortunate.
There are, however, a variety of opportunities through digital marketing that give web-savvy small-business owners the ability to strengthen their relationships with existing customers and grow their businesses to new audiences.
Cheryl Smithem, founder and principal at Charleston PR & Design LLC, says that modern digital marketing tools including social media offer a veritable smorgasbord of generally inexpensive or free opportunities for small businesses to let customers know they are open and to build excitement about new or returning offerings.
Smithem says it is imperative for a small business to create clear messaging and to strategically use digital marketing channels to disseminate appropriate messaging. Those channels can include platforms the business already owns, such as a website, an email program, a presence on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and a Google My Business presence.
"Small businesses have been so deeply impacted, and their resources have been really constrained for the most part," she says. "I think that the tools small businesses have in the digital marketing arena can really help them set themselves apart ... I think that it behooves every small business to figure out which social media channel fits them best. I don't advocate that every small business be on every channel."
In particular, Smithem singled out the value of direct emails, which she says has increased during the coronavirus crisis.
"I have always strongly advocated that small businesses develop an email marketing program so that they can stay in touch with their customers," she says. "It's not a time to be shy about contacting people. During the Covid-19 crisis, email open rates have skyrocketed and people's time on their screens went way up, and I think that a lot of that will continue. And Black Lives Matter protests and concerns have also gotten people looking at their screens more frequently, so people are attending to digital media of all kinds."
Smithem mentioned a Charleston bakery that found ways to provide valuable services to its customers who were staying at home. The bakery used a variety of channels to let its customers know that it would deliver fresh-baked bread, and soon was able to expand the innovative offering to include other food items such as salad kits and even non-food items such as toilet paper.
"It was just the perfect thing," she says. "And it took them out of their comfort zone, but I admire what they've done. … It's so creative - they've taken what they do, they've found new implementations to survive this, they've kept their communications strategy turned up high, and they've been really innovative. All of those things set a pattern for what small businesses can do."
Another inexpensive way businesses can communicate with both existing and potential new customers, according to Smithem, is through Google My Business (https://www.google.com/business/), a free offering that lets businesses create profiles that show up in Google search results, so that the results for someone's online search for a guitar, for example, might return a profile for a nearby music store, complete with hours of operation, location, photos, and other valuable information.
"One of the best free tools right now, which I don't think a lot of small businesses use to their advantage, is Google My Business," she says. "They don't understand that Google's primary desire is to give users the answer (to a search) in no clicks now.
"I encourage every business to claim its Google My Business profile and make sure it's complete, to make sure they have photos of their business, and that they have information that's clear about their business," she continues. "A Google My Business profile that's very clear - you will frequently find that these businesses do better in searches, and it's free."
South Carolina Manufacturing Capsules
Leading by Experience
Milliken has long been a global leader in textiles, so it was no surprise that the company would use its expertise to quickly pivot its manufacturing to aid those on the front lines in the coronavirus crisis.
"We have focused our development and manufacturing processes to help fight the battle against Covid-19," Halsey M. Cook, Milliken & Co. president and CEO, says on the company's website. "We began by engineering our existing textiles into medical-grade fabrics for PPE, and we will continue to seek critical solutions as we navigate this uncharted territory as a company, a nation and a world."
Milliken is producing new, advanced medical fabrics and barriers that are being used to make gowns and headcovers for health care professionals.Â These new textile products are produced in the United States as the company works to ensure the ability to rapidly manufacture health care necessities such as face shields and gowns.
Milliken's R&D team is also working to develop new fabrics for use in protective masks that can meet the strict performance requirements of the health care industry.
Made in the Shade
LaPorte's Products, located in the Lowcountry's Dorchester County, is in the business of manufacturing boat covers and boat shades. But when the Covid-19 crisis hit, owner Darren LaPorte was anxious to help tackle the situation.
"We quickly realized the water-resistant, spandex-like material we use for our boat shades would be a favorable fabric for non-medical face masks," LaPorte says on the South Carolina Department of Commerce website. "Within days, we created our design, trained our team and started producing."
The company has been manufacturing as many as 700 masks a day with plans to add production as needed. It sells the masks online to the public as well as to large organizations.
According to LaPorte, his company has not only been able to survive, but even thrive, thanks to the pivot.
"The fortunate thing is we're able to do this," LaPorte says. "We had the tools and resources on hand to be able to assemble these essentials. At the end of the day, we're helping the cause, keeping our doors open and helping other organizations do the same by providing these masks."
Teamwork Makes a Difference
In one instance reported by South Carolina Hospital Association, local businesses teamed up to put additional N95 surgical masks into play at a most critical time.
The SCHA's John Williams, director of disaster preparedness, learned there were thousands of damaged masks at a South Carolina hospital. The masks were deemed unusable because the elastic straps were damaged and would no longer hold the masks securely in place. Williams saw an opportunity, so he turned to Phenix Engineered Textiles in Landrum after reading about the company, which makes elastic for other products.
Phenix CEO Rod Gantry quickly worked out a solution for Williams with one caveat: The company had no way to attach the elastic straps to the masks. So, Gantry reached out to another S.C. manufacturer for help. He turned to Sleep Number, which manufactures beds at an Irmo plant.
"We are leveraging our capabilities and resources to give back to our community in a time of critical need," says Hunter Mottel, director of Sleep Number's Irmo manufacturing operations. "The best way we can do that is by helping to deliver protective equipment to health care workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic."
The quickly arranged cooperative agreement could yield future benefits, Williams says, noting other hospitals might have damaged masks that can be refurbished and used rather than discarded.