California goggle maker helping China fight Coronavirus
The email from Chinese hospital officials last month got straight to the point, said Roy Paulson, chief executive of a California company that makes protective eyewear and other gear for clients as diverse as welders, firefighters, bomb squads and medical personnel.
“They wanted all we had,” Paulson said, “and they wanted it right now.”
A new strain of coronavirus was spreading quickly. The death toll was rising. Chinese officials were interested in Paulson Manufacturing’s infectious disease control eye goggles and face shields to protect healthcare workers, who represented a large proportion of people infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) during 2003’s global epidemic.
Nothing about this order would be simple or cheap. But Paulson’s business has experience making a wide range of safety gear, including a new laser-protective face shield for riot police (a need highlighted by last year’s unrest in Hong Kong), and it found a way to overcome several obstacles to try to help stop the overseas contagion.
“I really feel sorry for the people with this exposure and the terror within society that this virus is spreading,” said Paulson, 61, whose father, Tom Paulson, founded the business in Temecula, Calif., in 1947.
“I have very good business in China. I manufacturer container loads of stuff and ship there all the time, and I’ve personally been involved with the sales effort in China, traveling there once a year,” he said.
“I was personally particularly interested” in making the deal happen, he said. The contract is worth about $2 million, the company said, about 5% of this year’s revenue.
Even though he had been expecting a request from China for his products, Paulson said he wasn’t prepared for the scope of the order or for reports about the state of affairs there.
Streets were empty, shops were closing, factories were idle as workers feared leaving their homes. And Chinese officials told him they were concerned about producing additional emergency medical equipment in their own country.
“They’re worried that the people that would be assembling the products might have the coronavirus,” Paulson said.
To get the job done, Paulson’s assembly lines had to be ratcheted up quickly to maximum capacity without sacrificing quality, enough to eventually produce an extra 5,000 goggles and 5,000 shields a day.
“That’s about 10 times as much as we are usually making in a day,” Paulson said. “I’m not even at that full production yet because it’s so far beyond my usual capacity.”
Within days, Paulson said, “we’re moving up toward full production power, like when you step on the throttle and you’re mashing it to the floor, and guess what we run into next? We can’t get the stuff over there because they didn’t want it by sea, they want it by air, and all of these airlines have shut down on flying to China, so now there is a huge problem. How do we send it?”
About 73 airlines on three continents had canceled more than 50,000 flights to, from and within China in the days since the outbreak, severely restricting options for air freight.
“We’ve told the shipping companies that these are critical medical products. We have to get these things over there to China. They’re waiting for them,” Paulson said.
“But there’s always somebody there that’s willing to carry the goods if you just pay a premium. So right now we’re having to pay a premium to get the stuff over there and we’re shipping it by United Parcel Service because they have dedicated aircraft.”
Paulson Manufacturing ships products to 70 countries around the world in Europe, South America and Asia, so the CEO understands the risks inherent in exporting goods overseas
One question he faced was whether to add to his workforce of 150 employees and boost his production capacity for a crisis that might be over quickly.Paulson decided to hire 10 additional people for now.
“We are expecting that the crisis in China will last three months,” Paulson said. “It would take longer than three months for me to add more capacity, and I think that it’ll all be over by the time you’re getting into mid-April, end of April.”