AAPN Fireside Chat with Ron Roach

Pandemic spurs Contempora out of comfort zone – where it plans to stay

Posted October 1, 2020

 

By Devin Steele (DSteele@eTextileCommunications.com)

 

Ron Roach, president of Contempora Fabrics, Lumberton, N.C., and his colleagues at the circular knit fabric manufacturer have gathered numerous takeaways from its pivot into Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

 

He discussed the company’s journey and lessons learned recently when he keynoted the Atlanta-based Americas Apparel Producers Network‘s (AAPN’s) third online “Fireside Chat,” part of the network’s new American Ingenuity Series. Under the title, “We Didn't Need HARVARD To Tell Us To Collaborate – Our Case Study,” he explained how the company transitioned from a fabric producer for many end uses, including Major League Baseball (MLB), into a manufacturer for various PPE, including face masks and isolation gowns.

 

Introducing the program, which also included remarks from AAPN President Ed Gribbin, AAPN Managing Director Mike Todaro quoted former network President Rick Horwitch of Bureau Veritas: “If we are waiting to return to normal, we are missing the opportunity to reinvent our future” – an apropos opinion that related well to Roach’s forthcoming remarks.

 

Unraveling, then pivoting

Contempora Fabrics’ business started to unravel the week of March 16 as the pandemic was taking hold in the U.S., Roach informed. With so much of its business revolving around team sports, and with MLB games idling, business quickly deteriorated, he said.

 

“We wanted to be honest with our employees,” he said. “We told them we still hoped to operate four days a week, and we were going to operate only if we could do that safely. But things were literally changing hourly. We were having management meetings every couple of hours. Unfortunately, by the time Friday rolled around, by midday, it became apparent that our whole business had eroded. And we made the tough decision that day to furlough 150 people.

 

“This is my 35th year at Contempora, and we had never had to do anything like that before in my life,” he added. “It was a very gut-wrenching decision, but we felt like we had no choice.”

 

The same day, the company’s fabric quality manager, a sewing expert, decided to bring her own sewing machine in and set it up in the quality lab to experiment with mask-making. There, she started making masks out of Contempora’s knitted fabrics, as well as wovens and nonwovens from outside sources, with elastic and ties and some with nose-stays. When she had made enough samples, company personnel drove them to the local hospital to get their opinion on the efficacy and usefulness of the products. From that feedback, they settled on a nonwovens mask as a potential new item.

 

“Remember:  We’re a circular knit manufacturer, but we don’t know anything about nonwovens,” Roach said.

 

That next morning, Roach visited a textile fabric liquidator in town and bought every piece of nonwoven material they had, he recalled. That was enough to make about 40,000 to 50,000 masks, he added.

 

“And by Monday, we started making masks,” he said. “At the same time during that weekend, we were actually able to secure enough business that we felt we could open back up on Tuesday.”

 

Which it did, calling back about 50 percent of its employees to resume operations.

 

“Our main focus the whole time was if we can’t operate safely, then we can’t open,” Roach said. “We can’t put people at risk. We had to change a lot of things we were doing regarding safety,” which included erecting an outdoor dining area, installing portable wash stations, implementing social distancing measures and more.

 

“Again, we’re a fabric manufacturer – we don’t own a sewing machine,” he added. “So we literally had to change our business model. We settled on two or three fabrics. When the government declared a public health emergency and released some of those guidelines, that was when people like us stepped into that arena. It was a completely new area for us. This whole mask thing was literally a race against time.”

 

Collaboration crucial

From a collaboration standpoint and as non-experts in this realm, Contempora Fabrics solicited the help and expertise of many, including Mandy Strickland of AAPN member ImagineKnit Global for her fabric construction and testing knowledge, chemical suppliers, and finishers such as AAPN member Carolina Cotton Works.

 

“One of our first orders was from a company that owned hundreds of nursing homes across the country, and from a safety standpoint, the last thing we wanted to do was to put a masks out there that would irritate the face or cause them some kind of inhalation problems,” Roach said.

 

He then explained that the company could take two routes in entering the mask production market.

 

“One, we could try to develop and make the best mask that we could make, put all the bells and whistles on it, listen to what all the medical professionals were saying they needed and make it in the U.S. and do it at a cost that it could sustain itself,” he said. “Or, we could pick three or four masks and we could start producing mask volume as quickly as we possibly could. Based on who we are, we’re a volume knit producer, so we chose to go the volume route.

 

One of its customers, OnPoint Manufacturing, was already buying the company’s fabric for masks, so Roach contacted them to ask if they would be willing to sell back the masks that they already were making out of Contempora’s fabrics at a wholesale price. That would allow the company to at least get in the mask market quickly while it was setting up other facilities in the U.S., Roach said.

 

“By early April, we were making masks locally here in the U.S.,” he said. “And we were making them in Alabama, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. But even that was nowhere near the volume that we needed.”

 

So the Contempora team reached out to customers in Nicaragua and Mexico and asked them if they would be willing to reverse roles – where they would become Contempora’s supplier.

 

“The whole point was, we had to get our volume up quickly,” Roach said.

 

At its peak in April, the company was making about 300,000 to 400,000 masks per week at seven locations.

 

“During that time, I would literally wake up in the middle of the night thinking we are not making anywhere near enough masks,” he said. “And the next night, I would wake up thinking we are making way too many masks.”

 

Over the next few months, Contempora’s mask sales slowed to a standstill, and the company transitioned into making isolation gowns by developing a circular knit fabric with competitor Swiss-Tex, and later added Levels 1 and 2 gowns into its mix.

 

“What you’ve seen through all this is competitors collaborating like never before,” Roach said. “There was a time during this whole thing when I was talking to one of our competitors three times a day.”

Lessons learned

 

Driving home Horwitch’s quote from early in the event, he added: “Our whole supply chain will never be the same (after the pandemic). Maybe we’re not as guarded as before. Maybe there will be more trust involved up and down the supply chain. If any of us are satisfied with returning to where we were pre-COVID, I don’t think that’s going to be good enough.

 

He continued: "We want to be a world-class fabric supplier, but I think we’ve learned that there are other areas we can play in now. I don’t want to say you get stuck in a rut, but you get used to doing the same things. This has reinvigorated our research and development and creative juices. We’re now saying, ‘let’s start trying different things, let’s step out of our comfort zone.’ ”

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