In February, a nurse told her friend Mindy Martell that she worried her hospital wouldn’t have enough masks and other protective garb for the coming surge of COVID-19 patients.
Martell, a fashion designer and owner of Clothier Design Source in St. Paul, acted on her friend’s fear and immediately offered her company’s services to several hospitals.
Now, Clothier Design Source is producing so much protective medical clothing that it could double its revenue this year, to more than $5 million. First, Martell needs to hire more workers, especially people who can sew.
The firm has taken orders from hospitals, state governments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And bids are rising, which has left Martell feeling conflicted.
“We could get twice as [profitable], but we try to help Minnesota first,” she said.
The coronavirus outbreak forced many businesses to temporarily shut down or scale back, leading to a possible recession and putting more than 20% of the workforce on the sidelines.
But it created new opportunities for some companies, including small ones in the Twin Cities.
Canviva, a developer and marketer of CBD products in Minnetonka, couldn’t get enough hand sanitizer for its office as businesses started to react to the outbreak.
Executives at Canviva, working with its science team and contract manufacturer, decided to make their own sanitizer. A quickly designed formulation contains cleansing alcohol as well as jojoba oil to reduce skin dryness. Ginger and lemongrass give it a refreshing scent.
It’s selling well at stores like Kowalski’s, where Canviva was already selling other CBD products.
“We could sell virtually as much as we could produce,” said Jim Zimmerman, a Canviva founder.
He said the firm priced the sanitizer at its standard profit margin.
Zimmerman, a veteran product developer, also senses that heightened concern for clean hands will not go away after the immediate crisis.
He’s working on new product lines and adding a second manufacturer.
“We want to add a surface-spray sanitizer [in a spray bottle], an extra-strength hand soap, a personal-size hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and a disinfectant mouth spray, which we have already formulated,” Zimmerman said via e-mail. He said the company will try to make the products stronger and more effective than mainstream brands.
“When supply comes back online, we know we won’t be able to hold all the customers we have attracted,” Zimmerman said. “But with superior products, fair pricing and superior customer service, we think this can be a very viable long-term business for Canviva.”
Zach Sussman, a partner in St. Louis Park-based Imprint Engine, a promotions company that imports a lot of merchandise from China, has hired 40 people, tripling its staff, to assemble face shields. It’s now making about 20,000 a day.
“We’ve pivoted our business to sourcing and supplying personal protective equipment such as face masks, hand sanitizer, medical gowns,” Susman said. “We’ve found ourselves in position to be a critical link in the supply chain of importing and distributing this stuff because we already have the relationships with the manufacturers in China and elsewhere, and already have existing infrastructure in logistics and importing to get this stuff imported and delivered to end users.’’
Sussman, whose company functions as a middle man for these supplies, said Imprint hasn’t had to raise capital because it gets cash from end users at the time an order is placed. The new business has replaced the suddenly dormant one for imprinted promotional goods.
“We’re doing these PPE deals on very low margins, often in the 5 to 10 percent range, as opposed to our normal margin on promotional products which can be in the 40 to 50 percent range,” he said. “I wouldn’t claim we are doing this solely for humanitarian purposes, but rather to keep our business afloat.”
Clothier Design Source normally focuses on design and manufacture of high-end fashions for athletic wear, such as cycling outfits, ski apparel and even jockey attire.
But last month, Martell made enough sales of fabric face masks and other protective gear to keep her sewers busy for months. For the face masks, the average sale price has risen from $2.50 to $5, depending upon the complexity, materials needed and the volume ordered.
“My  people have been phenomenal,” Martell said. “They’ve gone from making about 2,000 units of clothing a week to up to 60,000.”