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From Branded Merchandise to Face Shields

Imprint Engine went from providing marketing solutions to personal protective equipment. Partner Zach Sussman discusses the logistical challenges a pandemic presents.

From Branded Merchandise to Face Shields
Credit to Zach Morin

Under normal circumstances, St. Louis Park-based Imprint Engines would be supplying branded apparel, but as demand shifted, it has been sourcing personal protective equipment.

While the end-to-end marketing solutions company lost most of its normal clients, it quickly shifted its workforce to help fight against the pandemic, said partner Zach Sussman.

The company usually oversees the logistics of sourcing, branding, and distributing promotional products. Now, Imprint Engines and its manufacturing partners face the task of getting PPE across borders into the hands of first responders. Obtaining items that every other state and country wants right now is a challenge, to say the least.

TCB: How has your work changed or been disrupted by the pandemic?

Sussman: Because we're constantly working with manufacturers, both domestically and abroad, mainly factories in China, we very quickly found that we had resources for these much-needed PPE products. Through the promotional products business, we were already selling hand sanitizer. (If you wanted your company's logo on some hand sanitizer to hand out at an event, that was something that we were already sourcing.) We knew we had manufacturers who had inventory of it. So, we quickly found ourselves as a critical supply line for some of these PPE products that were needed. From there, the promotional products business in general really shifted quickly, where all of our manufacturing partners really started to focus on manufacturing and distributing all of this PPE stuff. So everything from hand sanitizer, to masks, to hospital gowns, to face shields.

It was a huge shift for us. It was kind of a great position to find ourselves in where we're really part of the critical supply line of getting PPE products from producers in China and Mexico and all over the US, and getting them to the hospitals and the first responders who are really in need.

One of our manufacturing partners here in the Twin Cities started producing face shields that were needed by first responders. And they connected with us to actually have our warehouse and kitting team assemble those face shields.

We already had an existing warehouse team and a kitting team who is normally responsible for packing up orders for our clients and shipping them out. They kind of retrofit our warehouse into an assembly line and started assembling face shields. That happened very quickly as well, and we were able to staff up. We hired an additional 40 to 50 employees in about a week or two, and began assembling 20,000 of these face shields a day.

Q: Have you lost any business because of coronavirus?

A | Our normal customer base has completely gone away. Ninety percent of what I would call our normal sales have completely disappeared and been replaced with all of this PPE stuff. So our business is about even, but it's a completely different business. It's different customers and different products that we're selling.

We are slowly starting to see our usual clients come back and inquire about the things they feel they're going to need to have in place when they get back to work. A lot of what we're starting to quote for our clients is now safety kits. On their first day of work, they want to make sure the office is well stocked with hand sanitizer, face masks—for their employees and for people who are visiting.

Q: Is there anything you're able to do right now to compensate for that 90 percent loss of work?

A | If not for the pivot and those new streams of revenue, we would be in the position of a lot of other people in the promotional products business, which are really looking to close their doors. The business has all but dried up and disappeared.

Q: Do you anticipate your normal business bouncing back relatively quickly? Are you bracing for the worst with the recession?

A | We're anticipating the business to come back even stronger than before. There are certain revenue opportunities that can't be replaced. A lot of the stuff we do is for live events. So when you think of all the live events that have been canceled ... that's revenue that's just not going to be replaced from regular businesses here. On the other hand, we are going to weather this storm.

We also have been talking to a lot of our clients who are really making big plans on things they want to do with marketing budgets they had available for some of these events that didn't take place. So, we're very optimistic.

You know we're really excited just to be a part of the chain to get these PPE supplies to first responders. Normally we're dealing with marketing, which is not life or death. We're humbled to be a part of the network that's getting this stuff from the source to the buyers. It's a really logistically challenging struggle. The rules are changing every day with the U.S. government and the Chinese government changing regulations on what can leave the country, what can come into the country. So it's just a very difficult environment. Inventory changes constantly.

But at the end of the day we believe in the work. We know that the work is getting critical equipment to people who need it, and keeping them safe. That's really important to us, and I feel humbled and honored to just be a part of that.

Q: Are there any other bright spots that you're seeing in the crisis?

A | Just seeing everybody come together. Before all of this happened, it seemed like we're living in a very divisive environment, politically. And now there's certainly a lot of disagreements, but it seems that people are really coming together and working together and recognizing that we're all in this together. We're going to fail or succeed together.

Q: What's your work at home setup like?

A | I've got a Wheaten Terrier, and she is very active and she loves to be on Zoom chats. Dogs are a big part of our office culture; we have a dog-friendly environment. On any given day, we've got seven to 10 dogs in the office. So we're all used to seeing each other's dogs. We miss the dogs as much as we miss each other. And the dogs are all making a lot of appearances on Zoom calls and things like that.

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