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- Benjamin VandenWymelenberg, as told to Catherine McHugh
- Apr 14, 2020
How a Specialty Gift Manufacturer Began Supplying Hospitals With PPE Units
Small business owners have seen their companies change overnight due to the coronavirus. In our #openforbusiness series, we're highlighting Northwestern Mutual clients who have been forced to get creative in order to adapt to these unprecedented times and keep their businesses running. We hope you'll get inspiration from their stories and help support them whenever possible.
Business: Woodchuck, USA
Founder and Chairman: Benjamin VandenWymelenberg
Since 2012, Minneapolis–based Woodchuck USA has been designing and manufacturing custom wooden gifts ranging from journals and business card holders to flasks for businesses both large and small. Our mission is to plant a tree for every product we sell. Last month, when our orders began drying up due to the widespread economic squeeze caused by the coronavirus, we had to make the tough decision to furlough half of our 40-person workforce.
Then, I got a call from a friend who had a hospital that needed 10,000 masks for health care workers. He asked if we could change our production line to make them. I said, “Absolutely.”
We were able to hire all our workers back — and then some — to produce masks for hospitals all across the country. Here’s what we did.
We learned a new skill quickly
Johns Hopkins University knew there was going to be a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). So it published specifications and guidelines for face shields so that companies like ours could make them. All the face shields we are making follow those guidelines.
We tested out a couple of designs right away and realized that this was definitely something we had the ability to make — and make quickly. Our regular internal sourcing team got to work calling different vendors to see who had the materials we needed in stock and we just started buying as much of it as we could.
We transformed out business operations
We are currently employing over 450 people (most of them hourly) and that number will likely need to triple in the next two weeks to more than 1,200 hourly jobs. We moved to a different facility so we could scale up the manufacturing. There are about 400 or so people spread across three shifts in an 80,000-square-foot facility that is about a mile and a half away from our main facility. We’re spreading out the assembly so our people can still be six feet apart and practicing good social distancing while at the same time focusing on getting these face shields in the hands of medical providers.
We are using social media to get the word out
As soon as we got the first purchase order solidified, I put it on my social pages — LinkedIn and Facebook — to help further the cause. And the post went, from our standards, viral. Within the next seven days, we had 1.6 million units on order from hospitals stretching from the East Coast to the West Coast. We currently have orders for over 2.9 million units with another potential 7.6 million expected by the end of this week (ending April 11, 2020).
Now a lot of referrals are coming in from other hospitals, as we are beating other manufacturing times by more than a month in most cases. We are currently shipping all sizes of orders within seven business days — from 500 to 500,000 units. Our country needs these products, and we are doing everything in our power to get them out.
We have published all of our contacts and where companies (like us) can get the materials to make these. The goal is get as many of the masks into hospitals as possible. The demand is way too large for any single company to do by itself.
I am incredibly proud of all U.S. manufacturers who are stepping up during a really hard time to help those in need. Businesses are facing such hard decisions and tight cash positions and yet so many of them are still just thinking about how they can help.
Benjamin VandenWymelenberg is a client of Northwestern Mutual; he works with Wealth Management Advisor Jeff Manderfeld.
Do you know a Northwestern Mutual client who owns a small business that has had to pivot due to the coronavirus? Click here to share the story with our editorial team.
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