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Making protective equipment is a lifeline for some N.C. manufacturers

Andy Warlick picked up the phone in his office one day in March. On the other end: an official from the White House.

With demand for textiles plummeting because of the pandemic, the president and CEO of Parkdale Mills, a yarn and cotton manufacturer headquartered in Gastonia, was grappling with the fallout. He’d already been forced to make the decision to shut down many of his factories across the Southeast, leaving thousands jobless.

The caller’s situation was just as dire. Peter Navarro — assistant to President Donald Trump and director of the U.S. States Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy — said they needed help, and fast.

“They were really asking what we could do, what our capabilities were,” Warlick said. “They needed masks.”

With that call, Warlick’s plans changed. He set to work producing desperately needed masks, gowns and swabs.

“A lot of times chaos creates opportunity, but it only creates opportunity for people willing to see it and willing to change to get it,” Warlick said.

As the pandemic shut down factories and severed supply chains, manufacturers anticipated another blow to their beleaguered industry. As demand for luxuries lessened, manufacturers had flashbacks to prior downturns. More than 330,000 manufacturing jobs in North Carolina had been eliminated between 2000 and 2010. Since the Great Recession, producers had slowly added jobs, but the industry is still a shadow of its 20th century self.

But some North Carolina manufacturers have weathered the coronavirus crisis by switching gears during the pandemic to produce much needed personal protective equipment. For some, the transition was a lifeline. For others, it felt like a duty.

Local companies that began manufacturing masks include Textile Field USA and Hudson’s Hill in Greensboro, Bossong Hosiery in Asheboro and Alterations by Shonda in Liberty. Precision Fabrics Group and Volvo Group Trucks of the Americas in Greensboro also added to their repertoires — one producing fabric for hospital gowns, the other, plastic visors for face shields.

“They all were very willing to jump in and help out, and many of them did,” said Phil Mintz, executive director of N.C. State University Industry Expansion Solutions. “Some for regular survival — they saw an opportunity to maintain their staff. Others just wanted to help out.”

That call to action is just a detour for some, while others are contemplating making a permanent switch. A move to return the manufacturing of masks and other medical gear to the United States could determine what some manufacturers do, though the effort may require the government to prop up these companies.

For Warlick, that White House call was perfectly timed. Before then, roughly 4,000 jobs at Parkdale Mills plants were on the chopping block. The business of producing personal protective equipment allowed Warlick to keep about 2,000 of those workers and hold off shutting down some plants.

“But not only did we want to help out, it turned out to be a blessing,” Warlick said.

An industry still recovering

North Carolina’s manufacturing industry has been hit hard before, especially the textile sector.

The state was once a leader in textile manufacturing. The specialty began to wither in the mid-1990s, when new trade agreements opened up possibilities for cheaper production abroad. Hundreds of mills shuttered through the 2000s, decimating the economies of rural North Carolina towns.

The recession in 2008 struck another blow to the textile industry, along with the bulk of manufacturing in North Carolina. In some ways the textile sector continues to struggle, Mintz said.

Since the mid-1990s, more than 80% of jobs in textiles in North Carolina have been lost, according to the Federal Reserve.

So far during the pandemic, about 10% of all manufacturing jobs have been lost, though many are temporary furloughs, said John Quinterno, a labor expert with South by North Strategies.

Only time will tell how deep job losses in manufacturing will be, he said.

“The longer this lasts, the longer it takes to recover,” Quinterno said, “the greater the odds are more and more temporary layoffs become permanent.”

While manufacturers struggle with the unknowns brought on by the pandemic, they are also trying to learn from past mistakes.

Over the years, Warlick has watched businesses shrink and shutter under the weight of what he describes as U.S. manufacturing’s most daunting enemy: low-cost goods produced overseas.

Much of the United States’ textile manufacturing headed to South America and Asia for cheap labor. American manufacturers, the lifeblood of many rural communities, couldn’t compete.

“A lot of our industry has been run out of business by unfair competition … and everyone has been looking the other way,” Warlick said.

As the pandemic hit America, its government was met with a sobering reality: The country had relied almost entirely on Asia and other foreign nations for essential gear such as masks, gowns and swabs. And most of the machines to make them were also made overseas.

The federal and state government got busy, calling on American companies to reconfigure their operations to make needed medical supplies. Local associations, businesses and universities began organizing new supply chains.

Carolina Textile District, a Morganton-based association, created a supply chain out of the pent-up yearning from American manufacturers to step in and help, said Kathryn Ervin, spokeswoman with the Industrial Commons, which organized the Textile District.

The group knew there was a need. Local doctors had reached out, frustrated by their inability to get masks and gowns.

The Carolina Textile District put out a call to hundreds of manufacturers seeking interest in creating a new network to make protective gear. Nearly 200 businesses in the state responded.

After winnowing the group to 60 companies, the Textile District mapped out a workable supply chain.

The effort began as an attempt to alleviate local physician needs in the Catawba Valley region, but soon word of their success reached state officials.

The state’s Emergency Management division contracted with the Textile District to make 110,000 gowns. Week to week, the manufacturers make about 40,000 masks and gowns. Revenues reimburse labor costs, Ervin said.

“It’s really cool to see how people have stepped up in various ways,” Ervin said.

For most of the manufacturers in this chain, though, helping produce protective equipment is just a sideline, Mintz said.

“We had a call to action, and people wanted to respond to that,” Mintz said. “Many said, ‘I can help out, I can make this. … But we want to get back eventually to what we normally make.’”

A way forward

Others see this transition as their future. They are betting on a wake-up call for consumers to now appreciate the importance of American-made essential goods.

Jordan Schindler, CEO of Catawba County based Nufabrx, saw the writing on the wall on March 13.

It was just days after North Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency. Schindler watched the country begin to close and wondered how his Catawba County-based medical supply company would weather the pandemic.

Nufabrx made pain-relieving socks, compression sleeves, gloves and workout clothes infused with capsaicin, CBD and even IcyHot. Schindler suspected customers would be trying to save money and likely passing over his products during the pandemic.

At the same time, Schindler heard from family members in the medical field who were desperate for protective gear. He fielded calls from investors asking if Nufabrx made masks.

He decided they could.

Three days later, Nufabrx made its first copper-infused, antimicrobial, washable mask.

After a few short weeks of production, the company was overloaded with orders, Schindler said. The production at their Asheboro plant has skyrocketed to around 100,000 a week. Nufabrx has sold over a million and a half masks, including one order of 250,000 to the federal government.

“It’s been crazy in terms of production and getting product out the door,” Schindler said.

Instead of cutting staff, he added 12 new employees.

Now, he’s looking toward a permanent pivot to masks.

“Consumer behavior has shifted,” Schindler said. “Whether it’s this crisis or flu season, we expect there will be a demand.”

American goods at a cost

It took the pandemic for Americans and the government to realize the country was in a precarious situation with essential products being made overseas.

With that realization, the N.C. State Industry Expansion Solutions Office is shepherding a movement to “reshore” production of goods in the United States, Mintz said.

While many companies are interested, most are still nervous to invest in production of protective gear because the demand could slip away as soon as prices are undercut with overseas products, he said. As China reopens from the pandemic, some manufacturers who pivoted to protective gear are already seeing consumers choose cheaper goods made abroad.

Mintz’s group is trying to alleviate those concerns with a program funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, an aid package to help companies looking at investing in long-term production of protective equipment.

North Carolina manufacturers will need more assurances, Mintz said.

That guarantee could come from the federal government in the form of purchase commitments or subsidies.

“There’s going to have to be some leadership at the national level to make the commitment that says, ‘We’re going to buy a certain amount of PPE in the states’ — just like they do with some military stuff,” Mintz said.

The aid is most important now, Mintz said, as companies making the switch to protective equipment are spending money on new equipment and labor. Companies need to know the market is out there, he said.

“If you really want this industry to grow in the States, there has to be a national commitment to buy it right now — to just buy it no matter the price,” Mintz said. “But that takes some national support.”

Much of this control, Mintz said, rests with American consumers.

“It’s really a society-based question: Are we ready to pay higher prices for things that are made in the USA?” Mintz said.

At Parkdale Mills, Warlick is still on the fence about making a more permanent switch to masks and gowns. The company has invested in market research. But Warlick is wary of the threat of foreign producers undercutting U.S. prices, something he’s experienced before.

“We don’t know where that’s going to shake out, but one thing is for sure … we’re sleeping with one eye open,” he said.

For now, though, Warlick is committed to fulfilling the request that came from the White House several months ago — at U.S.-made prices.

Watch now: Former Greensboro City Councilman Jamal Fox hired as top administrator in Washington city

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Jamal Fox was the youngest Greensboro City Council member by 15 years when he was elected in 2013.

Now the former N.C. A&T adjunct professor — who’s been one of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s two deputy chiefs of staff for the past year — is leaving that post to run the day-to-day operations for the city of Camas, Wash.

“His background and skillset will be valuable in helping the city engage with the community to shape a (vision) for my three core priorities — land, people and honesty — while at the same time inspiring the next generation of Camas leaders and strengthening our community so everyone feels heard, empowered and welcome,” Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell said.

The city reviewed 67 applications for the city administrator position, Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell said in a video conversation with Fox posted Monday.

Fox, 32, was raised by a single mother, Deirdre, an Army veteran who was always after her sons to read. She held the Bible when he was sworn into office in 2013.

He lived in the Warnersville neighborhood and Ole Asheboro in Greensboro.

He played football in high school and was a wide receiver for Western Guilford High School. He wanted to play in the NFL but was sidelined by torn ligaments. Still, he lit up when he talked about the sport during a 2013 interview.

“It really gave me discipline, structure,” he said.

Fox studied political science at N.C. A&T but didn’t have much of a political resume when he unseated a two-term incumbent councilman.

He was 25 when first elected to Greensboro City Council.

“To me, age doesn’t matter,” he said before his 2013 swearing-in. “It’s about getting the job done.”

It wasn’t the first time Fox got a job typically held by someone much older.

Like when he worked for the Greensboro city manager before being elected to the City Council. And when he was at Walgreens.

The teenaged Fox started as a cashier and worked his way up to assistant manager, traveling to different stores in the area.

He hired and trained friends’ parents, aunts and uncles.

He was called a “young whippersnapper.”

“People were looking at my age and judging me by my age, instead of the body of work,” Fox said in 2013.

But he worked side by side with his older colleagues, slowing gaining their trust.

Late in his first campaign, A&T told Fox he’d have to choose between the race and his part-time teaching position because he hadn’t followed proper procedures in alerting them. He was suspended from the post after he wouldn’t step down.

At the time, some said the controversy probably helped put him over the top in the close race.

He won his second term in a landslide.

Fox said the work he had done during his first term had resonated with constituents. Big projects he said that he had a hand in moving forward include the transfer of ownership of War Memorial Stadium to A&T and efforts to build a co-op grocery store on Phillips Avenue in northeast Greensboro.

During his second term, he was part of a 7-2 majority in 2015 that approved a “Greensboro Massacre” historical marker.

The marker commemorates the 1979 violent clash between weapon-carrying white supremacists and a protest group that left five anti-Ku Klux Klan marchers dead and 10 others wounded. Police were nowhere in sight.

The two dissenting councilmen found the word “massacre” too strong.

“In my 27 years on Earth, I’ve always known it as the Greensboro Massacre,” Fox said at the time.

“In Greensboro we need to acknowledge our history, but we also have to keep our eye on the prize and rise above personality conflicts and race,” Fox said. “This is a part of that.”

Fox stunned people in 2017, first saying he wouldn’t seek re-election in the fall and then resigning from the council in late June.

“I am getting married soon,” Fox said at the time. “My soon-to-be wife just took on another great opportunity. As a family man, I am going to support her endeavors.”

That July, Fox accepted a position with the city of Portland as property and business development manager. He was promoted to deputy chief in May 2019.

Portland’s mayor described Fox as a “tremendous asset,” who served key roles such as liaison for several economic development projects, helping create job opportunities for young people involved in the criminal justice system and helping craft ongoing police reform plans.

“He has been integral in building an equitable economy, achieving shared prosperity, and implementing ongoing police reform,” Wheeler said in a statement. “We wish him all the best in his new role. He will be missed.”

Fox is the second high-level staff member to announce their departure from Wheeler’s office this month. Eileen Park, Wheeler’s communications director, announced July 6 that she would be leaving the city at the end of the month to pursuing new opportunities in Canada.

Fox’s last day as a Portland city employee will be Aug. 28. The city of Camas said he is tentative scheduled to start as city administrator three days later.

If the city council approves Fox’s appointment, he is expected to begin Aug. 31.

Fox lives with his wife and their 1-year-old son. He lauded the city’s history, parks, residents, ischools and public safety.

“Camas is poised for great things,” Fox said. “We wanted a place where we can lay our roots and grow our family, and Camas was that community.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Cheers! Pandemic buying drove N.C. liquor sales to new heights

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic — or maybe because of it — North Carolina liquor sales jumped nearly 12% in the fiscal year that ended June 30, to a new record of nearly $1.37 billion.

It’s normal for the sales to grow and set a new record annually — sales have set records for the past five years, the North Carolina ABC Commission said — but this jump was much higher than normal. In the prior five fiscal years, the sales growth averaged 7.14% annually, according to data on the ABC Commission website.

The jump largely came in the spring with a dramatic increase in retail over-the-counter sales at the state’s government-owned liquor stores, the managers of two local alcoholic beverage control systems said. It started in March when Gov. Roy Cooper shut down bars and restaurants and closed businesses that were considered to be “nonessential” in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Early on when COVID hit, there was — I call it ‘panic buying,’ just like before a storm comes in,” said Charles Hill, the general manager of the New Hanover County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. “And people were buying a lot more half-gallons, which are the 1.75 liter bottles.”

Customers at Hill’s eight Wilmington-area stores told Hill they thought the governor would close the liquor stores, he added.

But the liquor stores never shuttered. And now that the bars have been closed for more than four months and the reopened restaurants are operating at reduced capacity, many customers continue to have their cocktails at home, Hill said. Some have noticed that their drinks are less expensive than at a bar or a restaurant, he said.

By law, bars and restaurants must purchase their alcohol from their nearby, government-operated ABC stores. The sales to the bars and restaurants crashed in March, April and May and as of June were still far below normal, according to state sales data.

For example, the ABC stores in Cumberland County in April sold only $595.90 worth of alcohol to bars and restaurants and other places that sell mixed drinks, a sales report says. In April 2019, these sales were $611,596.

In April, 105 ABC systems across North Carolina reported $0 in sales to bars and restaurants (although it appears that 16 of these don’t have any such customers in their communities, as they had $0 in sales to bars and restaurants in the prior fiscal year).

With the shutdowns, some ABC boards let retailers return unopened liquor. The ABC system in Durham reported negative $12,077 in sales and the Triad Municipal board had negative $5,492.

At the 10 Fayetteville-area stores, sales to individuals more than made up for the lost sales to local businesses, said General Manager David Horne of the Cumberland County ABC Board.

Cumberland County’s retail sales have been 30% higher than usual since the spring, Horne said.

Overall, Cumberland County ended the fiscal year with $45.5 million in sales, according to state ABC Commission data, up almost 14% from $39.9 million the prior fiscal year.

Other local ABC systems saw more growth, and others less.

It depends on the local market, Hill and Horne said. More tourist-oriented communities and those with large bar and restaurant markets grew more slowly or suffered with the coronavirus shutdowns, they said.

Beach and tourist oriented New Hanover County had 8.4% year-over-year growth.

Sales grew only 0.53% in Dare County, with its tourist-dependent Outer Banks.

Asheville, another tourist destination, had 4.41% growth.

Horne in Cumberland County said sales growth has been steady across all brands of liquor.