John Schwanke knows his family-owned manufacturing company is not the sexiest of trades.
Another company has a nagging problem with a product, and Lakeview Industries solves it. Two parts squeaking together? The Carver company makes a foam cushion. Leaking fluids? Lakeview makes a rubber gasket. Too much vibration, or too weak a seal? They’ll figure it out.
Boring stuff, really. It can feel like making widgets that help other businesses succeed.
But completely flipping their business model to manufacture and ship out 5 million face shields in six weeks so health care workers can be protected from the coronavirus?
Now that is inspiring work.
In mid-March, as the country was moving toward a COVID-19 lockdown, Schwanke and his wife, Cathy, saw two immediate problems: how the lockdown could affect their business and their 85 employees, and the much bigger problem of how a shortage in personal protective equipment could put front-line health care workers at risk.
“My wife kept saying, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ” Schwanke, the company’s president, said. “And I’m saying to my wife, ‘We could make that product.’ ”
“We didn’t even know what a face shield was,” Cathy Schwanke said. “We were filled with so much pressure and emotion: We have this business we have to keep going! So I said to him, ‘If you think we can make this, maybe we should. Because we can help a lot of people. Not just ourselves and our employees, but a lot of people.’ ”
Those single-use plastic face shields protect health care workers from airborne respiratory droplets that are the primary transmitter of the virus. On a Saturday morning in March, days before Gov. Tim Walz announced a statewide stay-at-home order, John Schwanke, his engineering supervisor, Mike Petersen, and the company’s head of production convened. Schwanke brought one face shield a doctor friend had dropped off in a paper bag the night before: a curved piece of transparent plastic attached to a stretchy band, with a piece of foam resting against the forehead. A simple product, but Amazon and other distributors had at least a one month lag before orders could be filled.
By Sunday, they’d made a prototype. On Monday, Petersen started pricing materials; they already had foam and adhesive, and they were first in line to get polyethelyne plastic, but they struggled to find a strap, because elastic bands were sold out everywhere. By Tuesday, a supplier helped solve the elastic-band problem with a flexible rubber material they normally use for gaskets, and by Wednesday an overnight shipment of that material arrived.
Lakeview Industries had ordered millions of dollars worth of materials — enough for 8 million face shields — without taking a single order.
“It was very risky,” Schwanke said, “but I had to go out on a limb and say, ‘We gotta do this.’ ”
On Thursday, they started making the face shields. A third of Lakeview’s 154,000-square-foot facility was converted to mask assembly. Within four days, they had made 50,000 face shields, and the first shipment went out the door. They weren’t providing them at cost, nor were they price-gouging; they priced them as any other product.
Were they worried about regulatory approval? Their first customer told them the Food and Drug Administration had thrown the book out the window. Customers were making face shields with materials from Michaels craft stores. There was no time for bureaucracy.
“We knew we had to make a lot,” Petersen said. “I don’t think I slept for those first two weeks.”
Those early weeks were a sprint. Employees worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. Production was running 24 hours a day, and more than 100 temporary employees were added. For many, their first day off was Easter Sunday.
These weren’t just widgets.
“The feeling went from, ‘Gosh, I hope that I can keep my job’ to the excitement of doing something that’ll help in this COVID-19 fight,” Schwanke said. “It’s not just the job anymore. There’s a purpose here.”
In the midst of the adrenaline rush, however, came an emotional shock. The day before Easter, Petersen got a call from St. Therese of New Hope, the nursing home where his 82-year-old father, Duyane Petersen, had recently moved. Duyane was running a fever. He was a retired iron worker, a hardworking, no-complaints Army veteran who raised three kids in Grand Rapids and loved the outdoors: hunting, fishing, camping. He’d been in assisted living in Aitkin, but his health started to go downhill — a stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple myeloma — so the family moved him to the Twin Cities last year. But his health continued to decline. The past several months, the active man was in a wheelchair.
On Easter morning, nurses called again. Their dad had tested positive for COVID-19. Later they would learn Duyane Petersen was in the midst of the worst virus outbreak in the state. By mid-May, 55 people in the 258-bed nursing home had died from the virus.
Petersen tried to see his dad on Easter from outside the nursing home windows, but staff didn’t allow him to walk outside the building. Still, face shields needed to be made, a business needed to be run, so Petersen went back to work. He knows his father would have been proud.
Two days later his sister called: “Dad’s not doing good.”
The three siblings stood outside his window. This time, a nurse was inside his room, wearing a protective gown and gloves, a respirator mask and the exact type of face shield Petersen’s company was making. The nurse handed Duyane Petersen a phone. They spoke to their dad. He didn’t look out the window. He wasn’t breathing well, hungry for air.
On Wednesday, April 15, at 8 a.m., Duyane Petersen died. By noon, someone picked up his body to be taken to the crematorium. The family still hasn’t been able to hold a funeral. At some point, Petersen hopes to hold a beanbag tournament in his dad’s honor at American Legion Post 86 in Aitkin. He has no idea when that will be.
“You can’t mourn,” Petersen said. “I just saw him through a window. There’s no closure.”
Petersen isn’t angry at St. Therese; what can you do in a pandemic? What he is, though, is inspired to make more face shields, to ship them to more people in need.
“I haven’t had this much energy or positive feeling in my career,” Petersen said. “Gaskets, I’ll tell you what: It’s not a sexy thing. We’re a C-level component. But we’re at war, and we need to help these people.”
In the six weeks since Petersen and his boss got together on a Saturday morning to design a face shield, the company has shipped 5 million to more than 20 states, including Minnesota. Another 1.5 million are on order. HealthPartners put in an order for a million. The company has also donated tens of thousands of shields to front-line workers.
There’s still a feeling in the air at the Carver facility: a feeling of purpose. The company can produce up to 300,000 face shields a day, and Schwanke plans to keep producing them until demand runs out.
“We work in a world of capitalism in the United States, and that can drive you to think about the numbers,” Schwanke said. “This situation made me think in a different way: ‘Can we help people, and can we do it fast enough?’ You can’t do that at the cost of your business. But this is something the world needs right now.”
“I’d love to say we’re done, but everything’s so different now,” said Cathy Schwanke, who worries about her 52-year-old husband being around so many people each day. “Everything. How we are as people. ... You feel so humbled. We’re still going to do whatever we can to help.”