While many people labor from a home office under Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order, scores of manufacturing employees walk out of the security of their homes daily and report to work, many producing critical goods, from personal protective equipment to toilet paper to food.
Throughout the New North, manufacturers are stepping up to meet the growing demand for their products. Little Rapids Corp. in Shawano converts paper that’s made into patient gowns and operating room scrubs and caps. Sheboygan’s Rockline Industries is cranking to keep up with demand for sanitizing wipes. Crews at Lakeside Foods in Manitowoc are working overtime to get more canned and frozen foods to store shelves.
Anne Smith, communications director for Lakeside Foods, says the company realized quickly the important role it would play as a
food provider. “Early in the outbreak, when retail stores began seeing increased demand, we knew we would be critical to helping the country and ramped up production at our packaging and labeling facilities,” she says.
While Lakeside had contingency plans in place to address fluctuations in orders as well as disaster response protocols, the pandemic presented a whole new kind of challenge. Demand increased for long-shelf-life products like canned goods and dried beans as well as frozen vegetables. Smith says delivering those products to customers is Lakeside’s top priority.
“The overriding culture at Lakeside is one of an agricultural mentality where everyone pulls together to help out when needs arise. This is obviously one of those times and our employees are doing just that,” Smith says.
Demand is also booming for paper products. Kimberly-Clark Corp. is ramping up production of toilet paper and other household goods to keep up with the growing consumer appetite for those products. Compared to the same time period in 2019, the company saw its first quarter 2020 sales of consumer tissue increase 13 percent to $1.7 billion, and its first quarter net sales soared to $5 billion, an 8 percent increase.
“We’re … recognizing our manufacturing employees with well-deserved bonuses in appreciation of their efforts,” in addition to adding precautions to keep employees safe at the company’s facilities, K-C CEO Mike Hsu said in a press release.
Wisconsin’s converting industry is also working at full capacity to meet the challenges of COVID-19. Converters take jumbo mill rolls of paper and transform them into products that include PPE for medical workers, hospital supplies, food packaging and pressure-sensitive liners.
“Converting in Wisconsin is the largest lineup in the nation, particularly in the ‘converting corridor’ from Green Bay to Milwaukee,” New North Inc. Executive Director Barb LaMue said in a press release.
Biax-Fiberfilm of Greenville recently announced plans to expand its melt-blown fabric production for N95 masks and other applications. The company purchased a former K-C facility in Neenah and expects to start production there as early as June. The additional space will provide Biax-Fiberfilm a fivefold increase in capacity.
The company’s nonwoven melt-blown fabric and patented spun-blown system can produce about 3.5 million masks per day and produces fabrics few others in the world can create.
“Our materials have been used in masks, physicians’ PPE and in the filtration industry,” Biax-Fiberfilm President Doug Brown said in a statement. “A key is the breathable, yet tight-knit result that keeps out the virus.”
Companies that make machines for tissue and nonwovens converting also are seeing an increase in demand for their services. Green Bay’s Paper Converting Machine Co. recently launched remote service options, a move that has helped position the company well, says Kate Eastman, marketing and communications director for PCMC.
“That could not have come at a more perfect time. That has enabled us to really keep our service business moving,” she says.
PCMC’s Accelerate Live technology allows it to service equipment remotely and conduct machine checkups. It’s important work, as the company’s customers include manufacturers of products for the medical field, food packaging and toilet paper. PCMC typically sees a long sales cycle for its products, but now it’s seeing requests for immediate action that weren’t on its radar prior to COVID-19.
“From a business side in the longer term, we’re in a really good place. We’re fortunate in our industries that we support that we’re not dealing with the hardships that so many other people are,” Eastman says.
Springing to action
Organizations that support manufacturers, including WMEP Manufacturing Solutions and the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, began mobilizing as soon as it became clear the state was on a path to the Safer at Home order.
George Bureau, vice president of consulting services for WMEP Manufacturing Solutions, says COVID-19 has created an all-hands-on-deck situation for the organization. One of its first priorities was helping the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. spread the word about the need for manufacturing PPE, identifying companies that might be able to pivot their operations to make PPE and helping manufacturers get urgently needed equipment out the door.
With the pipeline now catching up, WMEP has shifted its focus to manufacturers with slowing operations. Most manufacturers in Wisconsin continue to operate, but some have seen slowdowns, Bureau says.
“We look at it two ways. No. 1 is what do we do during this time, but probably more importantly, what do we do to help them when this starts to thaw? That’s really where we’ve spent the bulk of our time,” he says.
COVID-19 has meant manufacturers must deal with the challenges of a pandemic while, in many cases, simultaneously confronting economic challenges. The biggest concern for manufacturers now is when society can begin to return to normalcy. The longer the disruption goes on, the greater the likelihood for short- and long-term damage, Bureau says.
Manufacturers’ experiences run the gamut, with some seeing contraction and others buoyed by the current conditions.
“We see (strength) in Northeast Wisconsin particularly because of the diversification and also recognize that we have some manufacturers that are making mission-critical parts right now,” Bureau says. “We also have some in sectors that have really not been impacted by the associated economic slowdown.”
As Ann Franz, executive director of NEWMA, began to plan and strategize, she said it helped to look to the actions of other states, such as Ohio, that confronted the situation earlier than Wisconsin. NEWMA has focused on communicating to its 190-plus manufacturing members that employ more than 50 percent of the manufacturing workforce in Northeast Wisconsin.
“We’re able to educate a lot of these companies that are directly impacting workforce here,” she says.
Through reach-outs to its member manufacturers, Franz says she has learned very few in the region have had to close, and most had not looked at downsizing at that point. In fact, many companies have contacted NEWMA saying they would take short-term workers (see ‘Hiring still happening’ sidebar).
Companies that do need to downsize temporarily can explore the option of keeping employees but contracting them out to other businesses. Employees can then maintain their health care at their current employer. Despite temporary options, concerns about downsizing could increase the longer the crisis drags on, Franz says.
Resources for manufacturers
To provide information to manufacturers — many of them already strapped for time and resources — NEWMA enlisted the help and guidance of specialty organizations, including law firm Ruder Ware and R&R Insurance Services.
Ruder Ware, which has offices throughout the state, including one in Green Bay, has assembled focus teams looking at the ways COVID-19 affects the area, including employment law, finance and manufacturing. The firm also looks at legislation and the governor’s administrative orders and disseminates that information via blog posts.
Ruder Ware President Stew Etten says the Paycheck Protection Program can help bridge the financial gap for companies that are able to take advantage of it. The loans require no collateral or personal guarantee and offer debt forgiveness after the fact to the extent companies can establish the proceeds were used for expenses such as payroll, mortgage payments, lease payments and utilities.
“It’s not that you have to prove that the actual dollars you got went to that purpose, but if you spent money on those items during the applicable time period, you can obtain debt forgiveness under the program,” Etten says.
Employers are coming to Ruder Ware with questions on issues including layoffs, sick leave policies, paid time off and the possible risks associated with having employees come onsite to work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to provide a safe workplace, which includes measures such as proper distancing and regular sanitizing, Etten says.
Ruder Ware also helps clients address cyber threats, which tend to increase during times of crisis. The firm can review cyber insurance policies to identify potential gaps in coverage.
“Sometimes when you get to a point in a crisis like this, it’s a little too late if you haven’t done something,” Etten says. “Hackers see chaotic times like this as potential opportunities. You need to have the plans in place to try to limit those opportunities.”
Michelle Froehlke, an employee benefits consultant for R&R Insurance, says COVID-19 affects both the business insurance and benefits side of a company’s business, including workers’ compensation, benefits and special enrollment periods.
While manufacturers are busy running their businesses, Froehlke says changes and new information arise quickly, so it’s vital to stay informed. R&R Insurance aims to provide clients with needed information and guide them through what changes they might need in their policies. That includes identifying programs and products that can protect employers and help them ensure employee safety.
“They’re finding out if they have partners, advisers they can really count on and make sure they have someone who is looking out for their needs. With all of the changes, they’re trying to run their business,” Froehlke says. “They need someone else to succinctly educate them on what parts they need to know about and guide them through what changes they might need in their policies.”
As companies begin to assess what they could have done differently, Bureau says it’s important to look at implementing crisis plans. What happens when workers get sick and the company “loses two machines’ worth of operators?” How can organizations quickly adapt to the need for many to work remotely? It’s imperative to address these kinds of questions in anticipation of the next crisis, he says.
In a situation that’s evolving daily, if not hourly, it can be difficult to stay up to date, much less grounded. But with all that’s happening, Bureau says continuing to work on the business and ensuring effective leadership is in place is more vital than ever.
“Mark Cuban said this recently. We kind of set the tone for the next decade regarding how our companies do from an employee perspective,” Bureau says. “The companies that are solid, they know how they make money, they treat their people well, and they focus on productivity and quality. Those companies are weathering this better than those that had potential weaknesses.”
Hiring still happening
The NEW Manufacturing Alliance and the Greater Green Bay Chamber are partnering to cross-promote long- and short-term job opportunities available on NEWMA’s website. To view the listing, visit greatergbc.org/jobs.
With many people out of work due to COVID-19 layoffs, NEWMA compiled a list of companies specifically hiring for short-term opportunities. They include:
Tori Renfus, [email protected]
Christy Welch, [email protected]
Jenna Thiel, [email protected]
Valley Packaging Industries
Cindy Baloun, [email protected]
Bill Bartnik, [email protected]
Sondra LaCoy, [email protected]
Alissa Beyers, [email protected]
Sara Rosenow, [email protected]
David Allison, [email protected]
Arta Hajdini, [email protected]
Andrea Brazeau, [email protected]
Pam Harley, [email protected]