A U.S. converter that used to make electronic cigarettes has converted itself into a maker of disposable medical face masks and is expanding to meet demand generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The owners of Premium-PPE, CEO Vitali Servutas and Commercial Director Brent Dillie, plan to invest $5.3 million in their Virginia Beach, Va., operation with assistance from the city and the state-funded Virginia Jobs Investment Program. VJIP provides consulting and funding for employee recruitment and training.
State officials announced the expansion this month, but the conversion started in March, when e-cigarette distributor PremiumEStore LLC began doing business as Premium-PPE. The operation is now focused solely on producing personal protective equipment and has secured high-volume contracts with the federal government and businesses such as restaurants and manufacturers, Dillie said in an Oct 14 phone interview.
"I believe we were at eight people in the spring and now [we have] well over 150 and [are] closing in on 180 new jobs," he added.
Dillie, a former Celanese Corp. employee who holds a chemical engineering degree, said the company has "a lot of manufacturing experience on our management team and at the factory, as well as strong expertise in fiber sciences and contamination control products."
The company has added "well into double-digit manufacturing lines to support mask production, as well as a lot of other equipment to support production." Premium-PPE buys rollstock to make the masks and ultrasonically welds the ear straps.
Dillie said the firm is already making 20 million of the three-ply, nonwoven polypropylene masks a month and will ramp up to 30 million within a week or so.
"We try to keep about 1 million masks on hand for those groups that are in desperate need, although it's been difficult to keep that stock up recently, as you can imagine," he said.
"Before the pandemic, 95 percent of the world's PPE products [not just masks] were made in China. That's a staggering number and a scary number, and left us as a country and our citizens in an extremely vulnerable place. That vulnerability was unfortunately severely exposed, as we all know, in the past few months," he said.
The Congressional Research Service reports China supplied more than 70 percent of U.S. imports of all PPE garments, including masks, in 2019.
"Throughout the course of this public health crisis, we have seen Virginia manufacturers like Premium-PPE adapt their business models to stay viable and help keep people safe. As we saw at the beginning of this global pandemic, without a dedicated supply chain for manufacturing masks and other personal protective equipment in the United States, we would be forced to rely on overseas shipments that are often hard to get and come with exorbitant prices," Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said in a news release.
Premium-PPE sells its masks under the brand name Amerishield, though it is not related to the AmeriShield face shield and custom mask business launched this year by music industry mainstay Disc Makers. Like PremiumEStore, Disc Makers of Pennsauken, N.J., did a quick turnaround in March to begin making PPE to meet the severe shortage in the United States.
The New Jersey company saw a need for protective equipment at the same time demand from the music industry was shrinking because of the virus. Disc Makers has been through many transitions since it started as record label Ballen Record Co. in 1946. It makes CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray products, providing everything from replication to graphic design for independent musicians and filmmakers. And now its new sister company AmeriShield makes face shields of optical-grade polyester with foam head strips.
AmeriShield and Disc Makers both are units of DIY Media Group.