American Ingenuity Series: Fireside Chat
Ed Gribbin: AAPN takes ‘networking’ to another level during PPE shortage
Posted July 2, 2020
Leadership. Speed. Trust.
Those three ingredients have worked together successfully to enable the Atlanta-based Americas Apparel Producers Network (AAPN) to be in a position to help the textile and apparel industry answer the call to address the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shortage amid the COVID-19 crisis, according to AAPN President Ed Gribbin.
Keynoting the network’s initial online “Fireside Chat,” part of AAPN’s new American Ingenuity Series, Gribbin discussed how the AAPN has reached across association boundaries to unite, connect and motivate hundreds of industry stakeholders to meet critical medical product needs. He also went over the origins of the initiative, where it stands today and what the future looks like as many companies have committed to establishing permanent made-in-USA and made-in-Americas supply chains for these products.
“Three big takeaways from this crisis as we still navigate our way through this are leadership, speed and trust,” said Gribbin, founder & CEO of Gribbin Strategic LLC, a boutique consultancy focused on the apparel/fashion and retail sectors and offering services in the areas of growth strategy, business development, product development and supply chain innovation, executive coaching and change management.
The event, titled "“Activating Our Industry to Confront an Existential Crisis” and moderated by AAPN Vice President Lynne Sprugel of PhD Supply Chain, focused on the association’s response to the coronavirus but told the story about the AAPN, Todaro said.
“This is our 39th year as an organization,” he said. “We’ve been networking for decades. And what's unique about us is our members come from each of the 30 links in the apparel supply chain, from the dirt to the shirt. We overlay a dozen countries in the Western Hemisphere. We are the go-to organization for this hemisphere for production. Today, we count more than 200 organizations and over 1,000 executives on our rolls. Hundreds of our members in a normal year have a chance to meet face to face in six or seven events that we conduct.
“But now we’re still all communicating up to a dozen of times a day online with broadcasts and continuing exchanges about this response to coronavirus production,” he continued. “We're able to do this through a network that's tied together through a broad cloud-based set of database-driven applications.”
Gribbin, called “one of the greatest influencers in our industry” by AAPN Managing Director Mike Todaro in introducing him, explained how the network, through Executive Director Sue Strickland, showed tremendous leadership on March 22 at 8:30 a.m. when she launched an online Sourcing Center designed to get information directly from producers about production and distribution of every possible medical industry sewn product.
“The leadership of Sue in the beginning to make the decision to open those discussion boards to multiple organizations – SEAMS, IFAI, INDA, SPESA, CFA and NAUMD – and inviting those members to join our discussion boards was pivotal,” Gribbin said. “Beyond leadership, speed and trust are the two keys to sourcing closer to home, in this hemisphere. And trust is a two-way street. Taken down to the micro level, to the apparel industry, and the examples of leadership, speed and trust are just amazing to me.
“Leadership, speed and trust are going to also define how we come out of this and how we deal with the next crisis,” he added.
Gribbin thoroughly reviewed how the AAPN’s Sourcing Center became the industry’s “go-to” connection site for parties seeking materials, partners, supplies and more in the PPE realm. He pointed out that 15 minutes after the site went live, Boathouse Sports – a company Gribbin co-founded in 1981 and was a part of for six years – posted a message. And, from there, it “exploded” by the hundreds and then thousands over the next few days and weeks, he said.
Quickly realizing the PPE world was the “wild west,” with no way to navigate and see who could do what, when and where, Gribbin volunteered to organize posts into a workable spreadsheet, which he updated several times a day, he said.
“We’ve had 25,000 views and nearly 1,000 different companies post their capabilities and needs on that resource sheet,” he said. “I learned so much about our membership and the broader industry just though this.”
The first “real need” came in from Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare, which was in critical need of medical PPE, he said. He explained how the network came together, reached out to others and was able to pivot as necessary and produce many thousands of gowns, he added. Even a furniture company shifted its production to assist, he noted.
“We solved Emory's challenge just because of the generosity and ingenuity of people on the fabric side, the trim side, the label side and others,” Gribbin said. “Since then, I’ve converted my business into sourcing and producing isolation gowns and masks and getting on bid lists.”
Gribbin went on to provide examples of how a number of AAPN members such as Parkdale, Milliken, Contempora Fabrics and Swisstex jumped in to assist in the effort.
“I’ve been the apparel industry 42 years,” he added. “The one thing I learned is we have people who just give, who are selfless, who join together to help each other. We had a couple of bad actors come in, but 99.9 percent were willing to offer generously, and that makes me very, very proud. But virtually everyone who has posted to those boards has shown leadership.”
He added: “The thing that most excites me about this is, these are people who not only are generously donating their capabilities and shifting their business to meet a critical needs; they're building the foundation of a true made-in-America and made-in-Americas permanent supply chain for critical medical supplies. I can't begin to thank these people, for the speed in which they've operated and the trust that they've shown each other. I think that's really amazing. I give a shout-out not only to AAPN members but also to members of all these other associations who have jumped in and generously contributed.”
Turning focus to demand, speed
Asked during the Q&A session how this exercise in responsiveness, flexibility and adaptivity through this crisis translates into product other than PPE going forward, Gribbin harkened back to lessons learned (or not learned) from the Great Recession.
“My friend (global retail consulting expert) Robin Lewis and I have been talking about this since 2008 or 2009,” he said. “After the last recession, we thought we were going to be back to normal, and retailers and brands did operate like we were back to normal. It’s a supply-based model, not a demand-based model. This crisis has exposed that model for what it is. Retailers have had to start out with 80 to 85 percent of IMUs (Initial MarkUps) because they know they’re going to face markdowns or closeouts. But it’s just not sustainable. And the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills is not sustainable.
“This gives me encouragement to retailers and brands to focus more on demand and speed and focus on this hemisphere and look to source more product here,” he continued. “And it’s not just apparel companies.”
That thought led him to cite producers of airbags, parachutes, awnings, tents and umbrellas – all of which changed their production lines to produce PPE during this crisis.
“Talk about ingenuity and reinventing their businesses not only to meet a critical need … but they learned they could become whatever they want to be,” he said. “That’s my critical takeaway from this. I think that will bode well for retailers and brands and consumers who are going to force us to make products on demand, make them faster and make them close to home (in the Western Hemisphere).”
Gribbin added that he believes an extension of the Berry Amendment, which mandates certain items procured by some government agencies be made in the USA, will extend to include PPE items.
Discussing the long-term prospects for made-in-this-hemisphere PPE, Gribbin said he figured by this summer, a glut of supply would exist – but demand remains extremely high, and probably will remain that way through 2021, until “people have a trustworthy supply chain that’s not going to gouge them. I can make a disposable gown in the U.S. today for about half the price that I can buy it in China. That’s crazy. It’s just amazing what’s going on in the market today.”
Asked whether or not moving to a demand-based system will stimulate factories to turn to a direct-to-consumer model and bypass traditional retailers in a “new normal,” Gribbin pointed out that some companies already are involved in that model, including Stantt, Laws of Motion and OnPoint Manufacturing.
“I think we're going to see more of that,” he said. “Traditional retail is not going to go away but many retailers are. I think that is going to be a very interesting thing to see as factories tool up in this hemisphere. Are they going to create a model where they're less reliant on traditional retail distribution channels? I think the answer is yes, especially with the advent of so much ecommerce technology. It will give manufacturers the ability to get up front with the consumers.”
Responding to a question about the shift to of more production to CAFTA and USMCA countries to assist U.S. demand, Gribbin said those nations with free trade agreements with the U.S. will become an even bigger part of the supply chain.
“In talking to hospital purchasing agents, hospital chief medical officers and government agencies, there is a huge distrust in importing product from China,” he said. “And you add that to the current trade tensions we have with China and the fact that, at any given moment, the administration can just pull the plug and say "no, the border is shut. We're not bringing anything in.’ There are companies I know that import products from China that are getting a little skittish. That's a problem.”
He added that when he was in the uniform industry, a majority of gowns were reusable. But fast-forward to today, and more than 90 percent of gowns are disposable – and are made in Asia.
“The question that I've been asked is, when the crisis begins to wane, are we going to go back to importing everything from China and throwing it away?” he said. “The answer to that from the thousands of people I've spoken with is, ‘we want something that's a more economical solution and a more environmentally sustainable solution. We don't want to be throwing medical waste in landfills.’ So I think there is going to be a long-term movement back. I think the market is going to shift. We're going to see this sustainable, economical move towards reusables that are made in this hemisphere. And there is capacity right now is Central America, Columbia and Mexico. I think the cost factor is going to be critical there.”
AAPN’s next Fireside Chat will take place July 16, when Randy Harward, senior vice president of Advanced Material and Manufacturing Innovation at Under Armour, will present “Hey, Einstein, We All Live In The Same Universe.”