Shifting gears

Nimble Brown Sales Corp. switches from bean bag chairs to face masks.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

By all indications, 2020 was going to be an exciting year for Brown Sales Corp. in Fitchburg. It was poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Stewart Brown, [pictured above, right], founded the company in 1970 to make bean bag chairs. It’s sewn over a half million chairs since, remaining a large revenue generator.

The industrial cutting and sewing company has manufactured and prototyped items to specification for a host of industries, but it has had a particularly long history in the medical field, sewing components like examination table pads, wheelchair seats, slings for lifts, and straps for more than 40 years.

Stewart Brown is semiretired now, and Ross, his son [pictured above, left], has taken the helm as vice president. With about 20 em–ployees, Brown Sales Corp. has annual revenues just over $2 million.

IB first contacted the company hoping to follow the process of making a bean bag chair, until the sweeping coronavirus [COVID-19] pandemic derailed all plans and the focus suddenly shifted.

The year began with a smattering of news reports about a novel virus spreading throughout China. Ross Brown heard them too. “It was in the back of our minds, but things were pretty routine through the first couple of weeks in March.”

What follows is a timeline of how a small, wholesale sewing business transitioned to producing much-needed face masks in just three weeks.

March 16-22: Laying the foundation

“The unthinkable became reality this week,” Ross Brown recounts. He worried about his employees and maintaining the business his dad founded. “There were just so many questions to ask!”

Brown pulled his team together in an emergency meeting to ensure everyone understood that business-as-usual was about to change. Deemed an essential business by the governor, the company went into COVID-19 protocol. Access to the building was limited, signs were hung around the space, handwashing and wiping down common areas was emphasized, and everyone was given two weeks of additional sick time should they need it.

“I didn’t want anyone worrying in case they got sick, and I didn’t want them coming in to work,” Brown says. The entire week was about ramping up. “We did what needed to be done in light of COVID-19, but it was not a revenue-generating or productive week. It was pure CYA, frankly, to try to keep the disease out of our business and away from our team.”

That weekend, Brown took some raw materials home from the shop, sat down at his wife’s sewing machine, and began prototyping face masks.

Through a friend of a friend, he connected with an anesthesiologist in Minnesota and they combined forces. “We understand sewing, and he knows the needs of the medical community,” Brown says. Together they researched, collaborated, and fielded calls about whether the  company could make N95 masks to help with an anticipated shortage.

“The answer was no,” Brown states. “N95 requires an entirely different process altogether and is out of our realm.” But how could they help?

At about that time, Brown saw a news story from the state of Washington, one of the earliest states to report COVID-19. Medical personnel were making their own face shields from duct tape and frankly, whatever they could find.

“That was a moment of realization for me that wow, this really is happening,” Brown recalls. “This is America, but it almost feels like a war-time experience.”

If health care personnel were jerry rigging their own masks and face shields, surely Brown Sales Corp. could make a product that would provide value in the marketplace, he reasoned.

With schools and libraries closed to curb the spread of COVID-19, bean bag chair sales, which totaled $750,000 in 2019, had come to a grinding halt. “How can we keep our workers working?” he wondered. “If we can empower health care personnel who were making their own equipment to get back to doing what they do best, it’s just the right thing to do.”

Using Sure-Chek, a medical fabric well known to the company, a plan took hold.

March 23-29: Product development

Brown worked with his product development engineer to design, test, and improve
upon a mask prototype. After eight revisions
over two days, they agreed on a design, but how quickly could they get it to market and still ensure that it met the company’s standards?

“We couldn’t just throw something out there,” Brown says. “We had to produce a quality product that’s not tricky to use. We’re in a national crisis right now, but when this is all said and done, we need to ensure our primary business and longtime customers are protected.”

As a wholesale/manufacturing company, Brown Sales Corp. had never sold on the retail market before. “Suddenly we have a product that would be sold retail directly through our website,” Brown explains. “How do we process payments?”

With IT working on the website and a product launch set for March 30, Brown developed a product description for the antimicrobial masks. He also contacted a retired former employee who agreed to set up something the company had never had before — an online store.

March 30-April 3: Product launch

By noon March 30, the Deluxe Cloth Face Mask with Antimicrobial Cover [inset above], a machine-washable face mask, went live on the company’s website. “It was the most exciting and the most terrifying moment,” Brown says, looking back. “It’s not like we had spent three months planning for this.”

They hit “publish,” and notified the city of Fitchburg, suppliers, and customers, and put it up on Facebook and other social media outlets, as well. Would it be a success or a complete flop, he wondered?

The initial response was encouraging, with five people jumping on the website almost immediately. “At least it wasn’t crickets,” he muses. Over the next 24 hours, 50 orders came in, and the company quickly learned there was a need to offer bulk pricing, which it turned around the next day.

Three days later, bulk orders streamed in, with a shocking call from the Los Angeles Police Department requesting 100,000 masks by April 6. Brown had no choice but to turn them down. By Friday of that week, the company had received about 2,200 online orders, and he started talking about expanding.

The business had been operating Monday through Thursdays, but the building sat idle Friday through Sundays, presenting an opportunity to add a second shift dedicated solely to medical masks.

The packaging and website make clear that these are not the CDC-approved, N95 masks that the nation desperately needs right now, but Brown hopes they can be an interim solution. “If someone is making masks at home from various fabrics, we can improve on that. These masks haven’t been scientifically tested, but we believe it’s a step in the right direction.”

Face shields should follow soon.

Looking back, Brown is conflicted. “I’m happy from a business standpoint to provide value to our customers and keep our team working, but then you look at what’s going on and it’s unbelievably sad.”

Checking back on April 8, the website indicated that, due to overwhelming demand, the company’s face masks were sold out and sales were suspended for a week. Now that a second shift has ramped up, Brown anticipates that the company will be producing more than 7,500 items a week, “and that hardly scratches the surface of the demand we’re seeing.”

What will the impact be on the family business? Brown shrugs. “I’ve been in the face-mask business for all of 14 days! Business-wise, it’s difficult to see the horizon. There are no guarantees in life, but right now the tortoise is trying to sprint.”

Brown Sales Corporation
brownsales.com

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.