What started as a “rosy” year has taken an unprecedented and historic turn with the threat and reality of COVID-19 sweeping through the region.
“Disappointingly, we just finished our best shipping Q1 in company history before the pandemic hit,” notes Mike Jablonski, president of Whitney Brothers, maker of solid wood furniture for educational environments.
The bulk of the company’s business flows in during summer, when school is out of session, as classrooms get refurbished, and new facilities are built. So Jablonski is hopeful they still have a solid season ahead. But as with the virus itself, unpredictability reigns.
“It depends how long it lasts: if only a few months, it could be a blessing where it allows us an opportunity to get ahead of demand and build up our inventory,” Jablonski says.
Beyond that, the company could face financial strain but would sustain itself with further measures.
“We are looking for opportunities to self-improve, cut costs and eliminate waste in our processes so that we come out of this stronger,” Jablonski says.
Other local manufacturers are taking a similar approach — stocking up and working on fresh designs.
“Bensonwood and Unity Homes are fortunate to have a good backlog of work. Since production has been considered essential and excluded from the stay at home order, we are allowed to continue,” explains Bensonwood COO, Hans Porschitz.
The organization began paying attention to news of the pandemic back in January, putting together a task force in March so they’d be ready to pivot as needed.
“We found it critical to have regular good and clear communication with associates during these times of uncertainty,” Porschitz notes.
By opening channels, such as virtual lunches, for associates to ask questions to leadership, they’ve been able to remain transparent, easing tension and concerns.
“This helps to instill confidence into our organization about how we approach the challenge, and we can benefit from creative and good ideas by the entire group of associates,” Porschitz says.
Bensonwood has also focused on agile ways to support employees as challenges arise, expanding their work-from-home policy and stretching to a seven-day week to reduce density and offer flexibility for workers with families. They’ve encouraged the use of the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act (EFMLA) for those who need to care for dependents, and the company is matching a bank of paid vacation days donated by associates.
These supports and strict safety protocols, including comprehensive health screening, sanitization requirements, and distancing protocols, have kept things running remarkably smoothly.
“Aside from an exponential increase in video conference calls, the company is maintaining regular workflow,” Porschitz says.
A few projects have been delayed due to the safety of project sites, so Bensonwood is primarily producing and storing for the time being.
“We have prepared a ‘wish list’ of research and development work that associates could complete if we burn through our backlog or run out of new client-related projects,” Porschitz explains.
For Brattleboro’s Omega Optical, it’s unlikely they will hit that point due to one of the sectors they serve: biotech.
“Based on our customer mix, we anticipated a slowdown at first, but between our biotech customers … also ramping up production … and our other customer segments remaining active, we are actually seeing a growth in demand,” describes Erin Hartgraves, product development and marketing specialist at Omega.
The company’s filters can be found in a variety of point-of-care devices as well as PCR machines, which are used to detect COVID-19 using fluorescence. To move forward and meet this demand, Omega has had to implement stringent safety protocols, as well.
All employees who can work from home are doing so, and those needed on-site work in staggered shifts with separated workstations. The use of PPE and thorough sanitization are also key to avoiding the impacts of the virus.
Beyond rapidly implementing these practices, Omega has faced another challenge that has arisen for so many businesses — an abrupt move online.
“This was a change that needed to happen anyway, but we wish it were under better circumstances. Our marketing department has also needed to shift its efforts to an entirely online strategy,” Hartgraves describes.
Trade shows the company once relied on for marketing have now been canceled, and they’re working full-tilt to find innovative ways to connect with new and existing customers.
“We are also seeing new opportunities based on our optical filter capabilities for fluorescence-based testing equipment and UV sterilization,” Hartgraves says.
The company’s goal is to remain vigilant against the virus so production and new designs can proceed.
Staying on top of safety is paramount for all manufacturers trying to weather the storm, and some are thinking even beyond their own campus.
“The shortage of personal protective equipment for New Hampshire healthcare workers is alarming and growing daily. We have the means to get some of these critical supplies to them and are doing our part to help support the New Hampshire healthcare facilities that are affected most,” SoClean CEO Robert Wilkins said in a press release.
Not long after original stay-at-home orders were issued, Peterborough-based manufacturer, SoClean, launched an initiative called Masks for New Hampshire, obtaining and distributing 250,000 much-needed masks to New Hampshire health facilities. Other donors and organizations from across the state also contributed to the efforts with PPE donations, including another Peterborough manufacturing facility, NH Ball Bearing.
Overall, New Hampshire businesses and residents seem to have taken the governor’s safety guidelines quite seriously, preparing for worst-case-scenarios and effectively flattening the curve.
While Stay-at-Home 2.0, issued at the start of May, reopened the entirety of the manufacturing sector with specific guidelines, the economy as a whole will need to reach a much healthier balance before producers are out of the woods.
“It varies from company to company, but the fact that they’re open will mean the economic hole we’re in won’t be as deep as it otherwise would be,” says Jim Roche, president of the Business and Industry Association (BIA) of New Hampshire.
Over the last few months, BIA has watched its members scrambling to ensure the safety and retention of employees, redirect resources to produce PPE products for front-line workers, and source similar medical must-haves from their contacts outside the United States.
In the midst of it all, Roche says, “There has been a tremendous response from both federal and state governments to assist employers.”
This includes the Paycheck Protection Program, disaster relief loans, workshare program, and more, which have helped to alleviate some financial stresses of the crisis. Across the board, industry leaders seem thankful to keep moving along, slowly but surely.
“Manufacturing drives New Hampshire’s economy in ways no other sector does … Policymakers should pay particular attention to this sector because it will lead the recovery,” Roche says. In the meantime, BIA continues to compile a robust collection of resources for industry stakeholders, which can be found at biaofnh.com/covid19.
Caroline Tremblay writes from Richmond, New Hampshire.