A screenshot from the SanMar website.

A screenshot from the SanMar website.

Island T-shirt mogul shifts to mask production

SanMar is keeping its 4,000 employee workforce going during pandemic.

  • Thursday, April 30, 2020 1:30am
  • News

An international business with direct connections to Mercer Island has been pulled into the worldwide coronavirus pandemic fight.

Go into your closet and check the labels on your T-shirts — from concerts or sporting events or conventions — there’s a high probability that shirt was made by SanMar. The family business’ owner, Jeremy Lott, is an Islander.

Earlier this month, Lott was interviewed by Shauna Swerland, CEO of Fuel Talent, for her podcast, “What Fuels You” (https://www.fueltalent.com/podcast).

When the pandemic hit the United States, sporting events, conventions, large gatherings — basically anything that would be normal business for SanMar — was canceled by stay-home orders.

“We’ve never experienced something like this as a nation… The idea that spring sports wouldn’t happen for any kid across the country is almost an unthinkable thing,” Lott said. “We sell uniforms to all of those teams across the country. The fact that there would be no concerts, no sporting events, no conferences, it’s just hard to imagine anything that would have done that. Obviously this was a surprise to us, and certainly a shock to our business. We’ve been in a mode of how best we can survive through it.”

A concerted effort got underway to combine resources to combat the virus. Lott says SanMar was contacted directly by the White House. The federal government asked SanMar to make masks, and the company jumped at the chance.

The company is making “the next best thing.” They’re not N95 masks — instead, they’re fabric masks made out of three-ply cotton jersey with a copper and silver treatment.

Lott worked with his UPS connections to move supplies and products as quickly as possible. And a coalition of international fabric producers came together to reconfigure their equipment to make masks and other supplies.

“This was our Manhattan Project as an industry,” Lott said.

The effort meant taking the specific mask design from the government and re-configuring the factories’ machinery to match the specs. That also kept SanMar’s international workforce — a workforce of more than 4,000 people — employed.

“If you go to our facility in Tennessee, there’s a huge amount of pride there that people have because they’re producing something that’s going to hopefully help people,” Lott said on the podcast. “And, frankly, these are factories that were going to be sitting idle right now because we don’t need them to make T-shirts and sweatshirts for us, so it’s providing opportunity for some of those people.”

“Making masks has been hugely important to maintaining staff at our Tennessee and Honduras factories. Especially in a country like Honduras with no real social safety net these jobs are making a huge difference in their lives,” Lott said in an email with The Reporter on April 23.

The goal was to ramp up to producing 10 million masks per week — the company hadn’t quite hit that mark when the Reporter followed up on April 23, however, Lott was optimistic that the benchmark would be met and the overall goal was on the not too distant horizon.

“We’re still building to the 10 million per week number but certainly intend to make over 100 million masks in a relatively short period of time,” Lott said via email.

During the podcast interview, Lott noted some supply issues the coalition was facing in making the masks.

“You have to have the right yarn and chemical that has the antiviral and antimicrobial properties — that silver and copper. That’s not something that’s globally available today, so there are limitations on how many countries can produce it,” Lott said. “If there continues to be a graven need and we can ramp up in other countries, we will.”

But though the company is keeping its factories open and working, there have been difficult financial decisions that have impacted its employees, Lott said, including reductions in hours and reductions in salaries.

“Our North Star has been two things… We need to make sure the company is viable when this is over and there’s a great, lasting business that everyone can come back to in a significant way… (and) we want to do this, if we can, without laying anybody off,” Lott said. “While we’ve cut hours, we’ve kept everyone as an employee and they continue to have their health care from SanMar. That was important to us as a business.”

As the company is eyeing a production benchmark, it’s also approaching another important benchmark.

“Next year we will celebrate 50 years in business, and we are very proud of that legacy and of the entrepreneurial spirit of our team. One of our core values is ‘Make a difference’ and we are doing all we can to live up to that,” Lott said.

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