The future is murky for Arkansas manufacturers that pivoted to produce masks and hand sanitizer during the pandemic, but as they shift back to pre-pandemic operations they’re grateful that pivoting saved jobs.
Manufacturers told Arkansas Business they’ll make pandemic products for as long as there is a demand. And a plant in Jacksonville plans to add hand sanitizer as a permanent line of business.
New workplace safety measures are probably here to stay, the manufacturers said.
“It helped us; it saved us because we were anticipating the orders from our current customers would slow down,” said Joey Walsh, manufacturing excellence manager at TY Garments in Little Rock. “And so being able to make the masks has really helped us and given us that cash flow that we needed to bring back our workers and pay them.”
TY Garments had been producing apparel for Adidas since 2018, but its plant at the Port of Little Rock put production on hold until about two weeks ago, when it started making pants again.
In March, TY Garments partnered with SBWT LLC of North Little Rock, which is doing business as ARClothMasks. SBWT has real estate holdings and was set up to provide uniforms and other clothing lines.
TY Garments is making the cloth masks while ARClothMasks is distributing them.
“Lots of people have adjusted. It certainly has been beneficial in keeping the workforce employed,” said Lisa Ferrell, president of ARClothMasks. “Our company has seven folks working. And then we also have partners that we use, as well, that have benefited.”
The two companies had made and distributed about 150,000 to 200,000 masks as of May 23, Walsh said.
Ferrell said the masks had been provided to 250 organizations and more than 800 clients, including Windstream, Edwards Food Giant, Arkansas Children’s and several restaurants.
Walsh said Adidas understood TY Garments’ decision to temporarily halt production because their factories in Latin America and Asia were also making masks. “To be honest, a lot of people aren’t shopping for sports brands,” he said.
Regular production at Tanners Team Sports of Hot Springs has also partially stalled because its main line of business is baseball accessories. The baseball season was sidelined by of the pandemic.
Tanners manufactures baseball, pickleball and tennis accessories under its in-house brand Vulcan Sportings Goods Co. and for other brands that include Rawlings Sporting Goods. Pickleball is a paddle ball sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis.
The company has been making “activewear” masks — for people to wear while exercising — since the last week of April. The masks are designed by Chicago-based vendor The Apparel Agency.
Making masks “has been a true blessing in that sense, of finding something to keep jobs” for both Tanners and The Apparel Agency, said Dusty Thornton, vice president of marketing and sales at Tanners.
“We like to call ourselves a sports car. We’re able to change, turn pretty quick and change on a dime and keep the business pretty flexible, and we carry that moniker down to our day-to-day jobs that we’re doing. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons for us to make it through this pandemic when we’re probably one of the hardest hit type of businesses.”
Peak production for baseball accessories is typically the third week of March through Easter weekend, Thornton said. The pandemic’s effects began to be strongly felt in mid-March, and a few people at Tanners were laid off. The company had ramped up hiring to prep for that seasonal rush.
Orders from stores ground to a halt, but Tanners has been filling e-commerce orders for individuals, especially for pickleball accessories. Pickleball can be played in your driveway, he said, so there’s been a spike in those sales during the pandemic.
Thornton said the company is expecting to see 70% of its normal business for the 2021 baseball season because “everybody’s sitting on that inventory until the next season comes. That’s why we think we’ll be a little softer in our Q1 and Q2.”
The company expects sales to normalize in 2022. It’s also waiting to see if baseball will change. Thornton said they are wondering if players will be required to wear masks in dugouts and whether the number of fans attending games will be limited.
He expects the demand for masks to last for at least a year, and maybe two years. But Tanners will not add them as a permanent line of business.
Doing Their Part
Rock Town Distillery of Little Rock has been making hand sanitizer since March 17 but is not planning to make it a permanent product.
“It’s enabled us to keep our people paid and cover our costs and that sort of thing,” said founder Phil Brandon. “So, you know, obviously I’m not passionate about making hand sanitizer like I am about making whiskey, something that I really like.
“I don’t want to do this the rest of my life, making sanitizer, but I’m glad that we’re able to do it and we’re filling a need. I feel sure that the Johnson & Johnsons and Procter & Gambles of the world will scale up and eventually saturate the market again, but, in the meantime, we’re here to do our part.”
INEOS Composites in Jacksonville, which was making polyester resins and employs 46 people, is also making hand sanitizer. The plant was challenged by Jim Ratcliffe, owner of parent company London-based INEOS, to do that within 10 days.
Jacksonville’s is one of two INEOS facilities, the other being in Pennsylvania, producing millions of gallons of sanitizer that will be donated to hospitals throughout the country.
Duke Lippincott, plant manager at the Jacksonville facility, said it’s repurposed equipment that includes a 14,000-gallon tank, reviewed safety requirements and processing equipment for logistical needs and cleared out an existing laboratory space.
The plant is also acquiring, assembling and testing a new blending production and bottling line, he said.
Unlike Rock Town, INEOS Composites is looking to turn sanitizer into a new line of business.
It’s planning to build a sanitizer plant in Jacksonville and hire workers there. Development of a product that is ready for sale to the public and to wholesale distributors as well as supermarkets is underway, Lippincott said.
He said the plant had been able to continue operating as usual, though it has reduced costs to minimize the impact of the economic downturn and hopes to come out stronger once the crisis has passed.
Putting Safety First
Most of the companies that pivoted had halted or partially halted production of what they made in the days before the pandemic. INEOS Composites and Lexicon Fabricators & Constructors of Little Rock are exceptions to that rule.
Lexicon has finished making brackets for the 4,000 face shields that were delivered to six central Arkansas hospitals as part of a Little Rock Regional Chamber-led project.
Lexicon’s regular projects — steel fabrication for power plants, refineries, steel mills and more — have been deemed “essential” by the federal government, President and CEO Patrick Schueck said. Making the brackets was a temporary and additional endeavor.
Schueck did have some thoughts on the long-term impact of the pandemic on the manufacturing industry.
“I think, right now, which is a good thing, the word ‘safety’ is in capital letters. The biggest thing about this crisis is that everybody needs to be safe. People don’t want to come to work if they don’t feel safe,” he said.
Lexicon has been keeping workers 6 feet apart, checking their temperatures, having them wear masks and staggering shift start times and lunchtimes to avoid large gatherings of workers.
Schueck expects those precautions to continue. “People just — they have to feel safe. They have to feel like everything that we’re doing is for their protection and for them to be able to go home to their families every night and not expose them to something that they got at work,” he said.
Walsh said TY Garments has also spaced its workers out, limited the number of people in meetings and required workers to wear masks. As for the long-term impact of the pandemic, he said, “It will affect our operations for sure. … It’ll take awhile to be completely past it. I think it will become the norm for a while. I think wearing masks will become the norm for a while, until, probably, there’s a vaccine.”
Ferrell, with ARClothMasks, believes wearing masks will become a practice for some segment of the population even after the pandemic has ended. She added that businesses having masks for their workers is critical for those businesses that are reopening and restarting the economy.