By now we are all sort of aware of the story of President Donald Trump and General Motors and the ventilator shortage. I haven’t quite kept up with the inner detail.
There was a request for GM to manufacture ventilators and then a voluntary consent and then some kind of delay and then a law and then an order and then something else. It’s complicated. I have seen photos of preparations being made and things being shifted around at factories, but I haven’t seen any footage yet of ventilators rolling off the assembly line.
That’s why I like the story of Ryan Joaquim. His assembly line in Garland is already going full-tilt boogie, cranking out tens of thousands of badly needed protective face shields for medical personnel. His story isn’t about complications. It’s more about desperation and ingenuity.
He’s 34 years old. He saw on the news that his company, Reflections of Dallas, a manufacturer of bank uniforms, was about to get killed. Not delayed, not closed temporarily. Killed.
State and local orders closing nonessential businesses posed a life-and-death threat to the company he had launched just a few years ago with a single fabric-cutting machine:
“The chances of us being shut down permanently could be really real,” he said. “When you are paying rent and you are borrowing to do that, that could definitely shut us down.”
So what to do? Cheat? Die? Or do something productive and useful? When I visited his small factory earlier this week, it was humming. All of the employees wore masks and gloves and were stationed at appropriate distances from each other. But they were working, earning paychecks.
Instead of turning out bank uniforms, they were producing clear plastic face shields, kind of like the front of a motorcycle helmet fitted with an elastic forehead band. Joaquim says he turned from bank uniforms to face masks literally overnight:
“I heard on the news that there was a need for face masks, and I basically just made one. It was just like something I drew up. I literally just took a piece of paper, put it on my face and drew the pattern.”
Facebook and Google, he says, were keys to his survival and success: “I cut the mask out. I put some elastic on it. I took a picture of myself with the mask on. Then I put that on Facebook, and I said, ‘Hey, look at this, this is kind of cool. We could make these. I don’t know if it’s something that people could use.’”
“A friend of mine from high school that I hadn’t talked to in a good 15 years noticed it and asked me if I was producing PPE (personal protective equipment). He said he worked at UT Southwestern Medical Center. I didn’t tell him I didn’t know what PPE stood for.
“I Googled it. I said, ‘Oh, yeah, we could do that probably. What do you need?’ He said, ‘We need about 2,000 face shields.’ I said, ‘Let me put together a prototype.’”
Joaquim jumped in his car, drove to UT Southwestern and picked up a plastic face shield that the medical center was already using. From his car, he got on the phone and called suppliers around town looking for the right plastic, elastic and other materials he would need to replicate the shield.
“I sourced all the materials probably within three hours and picked up a supply even.”
From there, it was do or die. “I got a purchase order. We delivered the shields within three days. They told me that we beat GM, Ford and Tesla on delivery by four days.”
Joaquim says he has been told that the auto companies have delivered about 1,000 face shields so far. He has delivered 10,000.
Joaquim learned clothing manufacturing from his mother, Patty Joaquim, founder and owner of Cheers, Etc Inc, a manufacturer of dance team uniforms since 1978. After graduation from the University of North Texas, he worked for his mother but always with an eye out for something of his own.
He describes himself as something of a news junkie with an interest in business and technology. He decided early on that 3D printing had to be a good bet, so he invested some savings in stock. That move did well enough for him to be able to put a down payment on a $120,000 Chinese computerized fabric-cutting machine.
With his new machine all set up and ready to run, Joaquim set about the all-important task of getting orders. He landed contracts and has been busy ever since, enabling him to amass an entire array of sophisticated manufacturing machinery operated by a staff of about 18 people. He was busy with orders when coronavirus hit.
Word of his new product, the face shield, has flown around the medical universe mainly on Facebook. He’s already looking at new orders for as many as 30,000 face shields for a single customer.
He says his ability to turn on a dime and convert to a whole new type of product had everything to do with his company being small and tight: “I think it was the fact that I was able to consolidate all of the communications to just myself and be able to make those executive decisions on the fly. It’s just being creative, I guess, and enjoying the process.
“This is why I am an entrepreneur anyway. I love the hustle. It’s competition, but it’s not competition in the sense that you’re trying to prevent others from being successful.
“I have had makers from California and Boston call me to get the pattern that I am using. They send me an email, and I already have a template created, so I just forward it over to anybody who says they need it.”
I guess somebody could look at this and decide that Joaquim just came up with a trick to keep his doors open while others were getting shut down. And he did. He says as much, quite candidly. Of course, everybody else was always welcome to do the same.
I don’t mean to romanticize anything or be naive. But he’s keeping 18 people employed, which is food on their tables and roofs over their heads. He’s paying his own rent and loans. I guess his landlord and his banker are that much further away from ulcers and heart attacks. I am told that landlords have heart attacks, too.
And he’s saving lives. By getting those shields onto the faces of medical personnel at the front lines of the war on COVID-19, Joaquim is helping to keep them healthy and keep them in the fight.
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And I don’t mean to disparage GM, Ford or Tesla. I grew up in Detroit. Everybody I knew was in the business, and everybody knew the story of the arsenal of democracy in World War II. Some had lived it.
When I worked on the assembly lines as a young man, I talked to old-timers, men and women, who told me about the day they saw shiny black automobiles disappearing down the line in one direction and olive drab jeeps coming from the other. They were all terribly proud that Detroit and American industrial might had played an important role in defeating Hitler.
But all those huge companies came from farmers like Henry Ford working on machines in the barn, car racers like Louis Chevrolet and boilermakers like John and Horace Dodge. Those were all people like Ryan Joaquim, ducking and dodging, running around town for supplies, trying to stay a jump ahead of the news.
That’s where we come from, this country. And why wouldn’t we go up against a disease the same way we did Hitler? There’s such a thing as being quick, nimble and doing good by doing good. Times like these can bring it out.