Bedford Industries, a Minnesota-based manufacturer that got its start making twist ties, had some long-term plans to make medical face masks and launch an ecommerce site. COVID-19 sped up those plans considerably.

Bedford, which has expanded from twist ties to other plastic products, including promotional labels and surgical drapes, had an entry point already making the elastic strips in the masks commonly used as personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Our initial reaction was we should make [our own] face mask,” Jay Milbrandt, President of Bedford Industries, said in a Zoom interview with NetSuite’s Kendall Fisher. “We gathered a team at 8 a.m. and said, ‘by the end of the day we want a production-ready prototype.’ We ended up with both a face mask and a face shield.”

Bedford elected to produce the face shield since it was similar to its Elastitag product and fit more closely with existing manufacturing processes. With a prototype in hand, the company took to social media. Suddenly demand took off, and not from Bedford's normal customers. Town fire departments, nursing homes and even grocery stores all reached out.

Bedford was well positioned to quickly launch production of a new product line for a number of reasons. It benefited from strong relationships with its suppliers, a history of keeping supplies on hand and some foresight when staff saw what was happening in China. Being a U.S.-based manufacturer also helps. And, it has an existing custom manufacturing business.

“We make custom products where we’re developing something new all the time,” Milbrandt said. “For us to make a transition to something different but within our core competencies is very natural. Normally you’re looking at several months.”

Working closely with its tool manufacturer, Bedford was able to get the parts to transition its machines to face shields within three days.

Bedford's sales team, traditionally used to taking large orders form distributors and customers, was quickly overwhelmed. That's when the company turned to NetSuite. Still in the midst of replacing its homegrown system for NetSuite's ERP, Milbrandt made a call to his NetSuite representative at 10 p.m. asking what would be required to launch an ecommerce website. "They were ready the next morning at 8 a.m. with a plan in hand,” Milbrandt said.

In the first four days that the webstore was open, Bedford put 12,500 face shields in the hands of those who need them and sold enough twist ties to make more than 80,000 masks. Within 30 minutes after launching the store the site had customers.

Watch Milbrandt’s full conversation with Fisher, where he also discusses supply chain visibility, securing raw materials and crisis management plans.

The full transcript of the conversation is below: 

Kendall Fisher:

Hi everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today. We are currently with Jay Milbrandt. He is the president of Bedford Industries. Hi Jay, how are you?

Jay Milbrandt:

Doing well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Kendall Fisher:

Yeah, thanks for joining us. You guys are doing some awesome stuff that I can't wait to dive into, but to begin here, can you just let us know: What is Bedford Industries?

Jay Milbrandt:

Sure. Well, we are a manufacturer in Minnesota. My grandfather started the company 55 years ago to make plastic twist ties, so every twist high that's on a loaf of bread, on the top of your coffee, it comes from us and that's taken a lot of forms.

Jay Milbrandt:

One of the forms that it comes in is in a face mask, which actually makes the nose wire in every single medical face mask out there and surgical drapes. One of the surprising places to find twist ties.

Jay Milbrandt:

We also do a lot of tagging and labeling for the promotional industry, and we have a product called the Elastitag that's quite popular in food traceability. So a pretty diverse company, but the twist tie is a core area for us.

Kendall Fisher:

Yeah. So if you can boil that down, what main industries and customers do you serve, and what is your business model?

Jay Milbrandt:

We are in wholesale. Business-to-business is primarily are our business model. So everything from those medical customers that are manufacturing medical components like face masks and surgical drapes, to bakeries that turnout bread, to the potato houses—we make a small plastic clip that goes and closes those bags—to all kinds of brands that want our elastic tech product. And they put it right on a product as their direct labeling and marketing tool. So it's really a large variety of the types of customers that we work with. But the core is that industrial, large food service or medical customers that are using our products.

Kendall Fisher:

Got it. So I want to then dive into how you've been able to shift that business model and that strategy for today's climate. But first, what has been the biggest impact of COVID-19 on Bedford?

Jay Milbrandt:

Well, we're in a fortunate position where a lot of the things that we make people want right now. So they're home, they're buying bread, they're buying bags of potatoes, they're buying fresh produce to make things at home. And the medical industry needs more and more face masks and surgical drapes and things, so we've been in a position where actually demand has spiked, and we are trying to keep up with the amount of product that the industry needs right now. So, that's been our challenge, is just moving to this really surge capacity situation.

Kendall Fisher:

How are you reacting to it? I mean, how have you shifted to be able to meet demand, especially with the amount of setbacks we're seeing on the supply chain side in terms of shipping and manufacturing and so on and so forth. What are you guys doing to meet the demand?

Jay Milbrandt:

Well, since we're such a diverse company with our foothold in a number of these industries that are being affected, it's a broad answer because every product category is different.

Jay Milbrandt:

For one, we've actually taken an interest in developing some PPE. We saw that there was this need, and we've always—since we make a couple of the components that go into a face mask, like that nose wire—we'd actually always had a desire to make a facemask-type product. It seemed like a natural evolution of the things we did. And so, we were trying to make a face mask, it's a complicated process and requires a lot of approval. We actually ended up getting pulled into making a face shield, and this is the product, the Elastashield that's been a really big first in the last few weeks. It's helping protect those, obviously protect the entire face, but protect those N95 respirators.

Jay Milbrandt:

So, one strategy for us is just: What are the needs, and do we have the toolkit and the manufacturing processes to do something that fits well within the channels we already serve? And then of course our core products that we're already making, we are just trying to work on the supply side and make sure we're having the raw materials to keep the bakeries and the medical manufacturers running.

Kendall Fisher:

So again, a couple of things that I want to pull out: This Elastashield, so the idea basically stemmed from you guys already made the nose wire that go into most masks, and you just naturally from there were like, “We should be making a face shield to protect people that are on the front lines and people that are continuing to work”?

Jay Milbrandt:

Absolutely. Our initial reaction was we should make a face mask, right? And so we went and we started an R&D process. And we gathered, we saw a CNN program that was talking about hospitals down in the Atlanta area that were making face masks out of office supplies. And this is a common story we're hearing now. And we said, "Is there something we can do here and we can introduce, the minimally viable product in the face mask category?" And so we gathered a team at 8:00 AM. We said by the end of the day we want to have a production-ready prototype of a face mask.

Jay Milbrandt:

We went through the day. We actually ended up with a face mask prototype, and then we ended up with a face shield, which again was that clear plastic to protect the face mask. And we went live with it or showed it on social media, and we had a number of hospital systems reach out and they said, “Can you get us the face shield?” And so we decided to focus on that exclusively because it fit really well within our manufacturing processes. It was just a very natural thing for us to do.

Kendall Fisher:

So for somebody that's tuning in right now that might not understand how you guys can shift from making the various twist ties and the nose wire stuff, how do you shift into making a full-blown mask? Because some people might not understand how that natural progression works. So can you walk us through that a bit?

Jay Milbrandt:

Yeah, it's a great question. So we have a product called the Elastitag, and it's actually a miniature size of this face shield. Now we had to secure the clear PET, and we had to make some changes. We had to go through a couple day iteration process on some tooling, but one of our core competencies is trying to be flexible, and we make a variety of custom products where we're developing something new all the time with our customer base. And so for us to make a transition to something different, but within our core competencies, is very natural for something that we're doing every day.

Kendall Fisher:

So how quickly were you able to turn this idea into a reality and actually have a finalized product?

Jay Milbrandt:

Well, normally in developments like this, you're looking at several months, from an idea to bringing something to market. We knew we didn't have that kind of time. So we gathered at 8:00 AM for our meeting to start this process. We wanted a production ready prototype by the afternoon. And we had that in place.

Jay Milbrandt:

And then we decided on Friday morning to go live with it on social media and take it out and show it so that we could get some feedback to feed into our design, making design changes that we needed, and we wanted to know what the market wanted to see and talk to some hospital systems. So by Friday afternoon, we were on the phone with our tooling manufacturer, and they had a queue of things already in their process, but they were able to work around the clock, work all weekend for us. We had tooling arriving Monday evening, and it arrived at our factory at 1:00 AM, and we had a team of engineers standing by ready to put it into our production process because we knew that by that point every hour counts—that when the people out there with their lives on the line are looking for PPE, we wanted to get things to the market as quickly as possible.

Kendall Fisher:

Wow. That is impressive. And honestly I love that this shows the power of social media in real time, too. That's great that you were able to put it out there and get feedback immediately and then immediately put that into production, which is pretty incredible in times like this—how social media can come into play and how you guys having the flexibility that you have were able to turn this around like you have.

Kendall Fisher:

Speaking of social media, so how did people react and what was the demand you saw right after that? Because I'm curious then to know how you handled that demand and those amount of inquiries from that point on.

Jay Milbrandt:

So we were shocked because we do not have a large social media footprint. We're a B2B manufacturing company. We make twist ties. It's not what people are looking to follow on social media, right?

Jay Milbrandt:

We certainly have our customer base and our friends and our community, but we saw the thousands and thousands of shares that it got and the number of people from all over the country, all over the world, who are encouraging us and asking how they could get their hands on the product.

Jay Milbrandt:

Now we were assuming we would be working on the wholesale level with large hospital systems or government entities. And we did not expect the demand from individuals from medical units, from first responders—so sheriffs’ offices or fire departments, nursing homes, even grocery stores—places that don't have the buying power particular to get PPE where the large hospital systems sometimes do, or they've got a foothold in the government to get that. So we were shocked by the number of people who came out of nowhere, just saying, "Can I buy it? Can I buy 10? Can I buy 20? Can I buy a hundred?" We were not equipped to handle this. It's not something that we're set for.

Jay Milbrandt:

We were just taking credit terms, and it's a process working with larger B2B customers. And so we reached out to our friends at NetSuite and said, "Is there any way that we can get an e-commerce store up in rapid time to be able to deliver direct to those who need it the most?"

Kendall Fisher:

And so that's what you did, right? Can you kind of walk us—you never, first of all, you never had an e-comm platform before this?

Jay Milbrandt:

We never had. It's something that's been on our radar for many years. Obviously e-commerce is huge, and you want to be a part of that, but it's a completely different business model than we have now. And it would have been very disruptive to our business model to move into that. Now, it's not a reason not to do it, but it's been on our roadmap, it's a couple of years out, and it's something that we've wanted to do and wanted to ease into. So, to jump into it almost overnight was a big change for us.

Kendall Fisher:

Yeah. Walk me through that. How was that? How did the process go? And now that you're on the other end of it and you have it up and running, how's that been?

Jay Milbrandt:

Sure. Well, it's been great. It's been huge for us on a variety of levels. So I would say that what was happening for us is we were getting inundated with calls, and we've got an internal sales team that handles all of our orders. But when you've got nursing homes calling, they want a hundred of these or 50 or some number, and you're taking a credit card and you're taking all this information, and we've got a lot of different pieces that we need to get into a place with production and inventory. And it's not a very retail-friendly process.

Jay Milbrandt:

And so, I think I was at home one night, thinking, “How do we manage this?” We've got our sales team that's taking these 100-piece orders all day and from the people who want to give their credit cards and they want it shipped immediately. And so we reached out to our NetSuite contacts. I think I wrote them at 10:00 PM and said, "Is there any way to do this?" And they said, "Let's talk right away tomorrow at 8:00 AM." They already had a plan in place by that point.

Jay Milbrandt:

So it has been awesome for us because we were able to direct people to this, especially through our social media platform, which is now getting a lot of attention. Not just for the shields, but we have so many people reaching out because they're making face masks at home and they want to just buy the nose wire. Maybe they're sewing a hundred. My mother-in-law's sewed 250 of them. There are a lot of people like that or they're just making them for their own personal use, and they don't know where to go. You can't even go buy it on Amazon. You can't go buy that product. So there's finally an outlet and then they can do it efficiently.

Jay Milbrandt:

What's great for us is, we're Monday to Friday, we close at 5:30 PM. Our phones are dark. We were selling things all weekend over Easter weekend. We were racking up. People had a way to get this stuff 24/7. So it's been a huge change for us. It's freed up our sales team to handle the orders that they're used to and handle our regular customers and given us an avenue to get these products to people who really want it.

Kendall Fisher:

Yeah, that's great. And you've kind of touched on this, because you said this was part of the roadmap, but how will this play into your business strategy in the future? Even after all of the COVID-19 stuff finally subsides?

Jay Milbrandt:

Well immediately we're in the middle of a transition from our own homegrown ERP to NetSuite. So it's been really encouraging for our people here to see this e-commerce platform in the middle of this transition because they're seeing—what was supposed to be a couple of years out—they're getting a taste of that and it's exciting and it's encouraging. I think they're seeing the vision. And so at the next level, it's really for our sales teams.

Jay Milbrandt:

Seeing this happen and seeing this work and seeing how powerful it is, there's already a lot of us talking about what's next? What do we add to this? What are the kinds of things that people are buying or buying a one-off part or they order in small quantities that fit really well with an e-commerce platform that we don't want to have people call in and they just want to buy it. They don't want to get a lot of work. And so it's certainly been an encouraging thing, and it's something that we're going to expand on and I think expand on a lot sooner than would have otherwise happened because this has been such a great experience.

Kendall Fisher:

So, with this demand, how have you been managing it on the supply chain side? That was another part. Earlier when you were talking about making sure that you could get all the parts and pieces that you need and then be able to distribute that to the places that you need, have you had any setbacks? A lot of companies are experiencing shipping issues or fulfillment issues and so on and so forth. How are you guys handling that right now?

Jay Milbrandt:

Well, I'm hearing that story over and over from people in the industry that they can't get certain parts of your product. And all supply chains, international supply chains are disrupted right now. So it's crazy.

Jay Milbrandt:

We've been really fortunate that we were working ahead on this. We didn't know a pandemic was coming, but when we saw things happening in China, we started bringing in more of our supply domestically and from around the world. Just shoring that up. And we keep a lot of raw materials on hand. So we've been in a good position where our supply chain has been, while you're constantly monitoring it, and you're concerned about it, we haven't had any setbacks in our supply chain. But the visibility into our supply chain is right now becoming one of the most critical parts of the business operation, especially with surge demand. Knowing what you have and what you can make and what the outlook is going to be in the next month or two is important.

Kendall Fisher:

Yeah, that was going to be my next question. Not just visibility into your supply chain, but what role does visibility into your operations, into your business as a whole as well as agility play in this shift that you've made? And on top of that, the shift that you've made, but also creating an e-comm platform on top of that. What role do you think visibility has played in allowing you to do that?

Jay Milbrandt:

It is absolutely paramount. It’s probably the most critical thing for us in decision making, is just visibility into all of this. So if the supply chain is a piece—everything right now is so tight. When you've got this surge capacity, production, when's it going to get done? When's it going to get out the door? What's on your floor for inventory? Knowing all of that is absolutely critical because you are making decisions from multiple sides, multiple large customers against surge inquiries, surge quantities all at the same time. And so all of these things need to work together and need to be visible to each other in order to be responsive. Otherwise you can't give an answer to anybody.

Kendall Fisher:

Right. So, and I know you guys are in the middle of your implementation process with NetSuite, but how will NetSuite continue to give you the confidence you need to make these kinds of business decisions and adapt in the future should, a) anything—and fingers crossed that it doesn't—but anything like this happen again; or B) just in general you have to shift your business.

Jay Milbrandt:

Well, we've consistently said throughout the last couple of weeks, we're seeing exactly why we're making this transition to NetSuite. This is the reason because of these critical times and the demands for visibility and transparency in our business that we're seeing now. So we're thankful that we're in this process and that we're a long ways in and that we're starting to see that bear fruit.

Jay Milbrandt:

Even just being able to watch our e-commerce store over the weekend on mobile. It's a holiday weekend and there were several of us talking about, "What are we going to be running here on Monday morning right away? Or when they start up, what do we want to get on?" Because we're already seeing where demand is going and what products are trending and making decisions that we wouldn't have had the ability to make because we couldn't have seen that before. So it's already turning lights on for us, is the way we like to put it.

Jay Milbrandt:

We've had some dark rooms in which the light switch was turned on. So, it's a wonderful thing to have happened and e-commerce is just a punctuation mark on top of why we're doing that and what the benefit that we're getting from it.

Kendall Fisher:

Right. On the cashflow side of things, how are you managing the cash flow needed to execute upon this big shift. But not only that, have you had to do any cutbacks at this time or take any action to make sure that you have a runway enough to get through this and still execute upon the shields that you guys are making and so on and so forth?

Jay Milbrandt:

Well, I think the biggest challenge in all of this is securing raw materials. And we're hearing this from a lot of people. Again, the standard raw material channels are not what they used to be. And so for us, I think the cashflow question is going and buying. Trying to go and secure as many raw materials as you can and trying to outguess that. What are we going to need in two months? Paying for that, you might be paying a different price than you were a couple months ago just because of the supply and demand situation.

Jay Milbrandt:

We've been in a fortunate position where we've had good partners in the supply chain previously, and so we've already been working through our normal channels, and we have good relationships. And so there haven't been any major disruptions in that chain for us. And that's put us in a fine cash flow position where we've been able to manage this. But I think we're all trying to be conservative and saying, "Okay, I want to make sure we're, making decisions, what do we really need?" Because you don't know what's coming, and we don't know how this is all going to play out.

Kendall Fisher:

And how are you making those kinds of decisions? How are you hypothesizing about what raw materials you may need or what might increase or decrease over time? Is there data that you're looking into? Any insight you can give us on that?

Jay Milbrandt:

I wish we had good data on this. Certainly we're watching all the metrics. I don't think anybody knows, but we're certainly listening to our customers and trying and others.

Jay Milbrandt:

I think for one thing that this crisis has opened up a lot of doors and communication with competitors and other people in industry who we normally would not have had a chance to talk to. So there's a lot of this collective listening. And part of the reason that we're in this position on a macro level is that a lot of manufacturing went overseas. We've always manufactured in America. We've never contracted anything overseas, we've never moved anything overseas. We're seeing the benefit of that now as an American manufacturer, that we can be responsive, that we're here and when other people can't get things overseas, they're coming to us.

Jay Milbrandt:

And so, I think we're listening, and a big question right now is, "Does the supply and the demand stay in the U.S. or does it move abroad again in six months to a year or longer?" And no one knows. There are voices that are saying six, nine months it's going to be back overseas. This is going to blow over. Or is it going to be staying here for the next three, five, six years, or what does that look like? Or is it permanent? I don't think anybody knows and we're all just trying to make the best decisions. You're projecting six months out, but every day is changing and almost every hour you're getting a different story. You're getting customers coming out of the woodwork in face masks.

Jay Milbrandt:

We've got car manufacturers. They've never had anything to do with face masks before, but car manufacturers coming in, and they're going to be making the face masks for the government, and you don't know how long that's going to stay around, and you want to serve that business, and you want to help our country, but you just don't know how to plan in the long run for that. Is it here to stay or is it a short term thing?

Kendall Fisher:

Yeah. So at this moment in time it's kind of day by day is what I'm guessing?

Jay Milbrandt:

Yes.

Kendall Fisher:

Well to round things out here, other than planning for raw materials and so on, what would you say over at Bedford, what are you guys doing to plan for the future, in general, as a business? And is there anything that you've experienced amidst COVID that you will definitely keep moving forward? Any part of the strategy you've changed? Obviously you talked about the e-omm site, but anything on the operational side, anything else that you're thinking about for the future?

Jay Milbrandt:

Well, certainly this is not something that any of us would have predicted. I think when we make a crisis management plan, we think fires, floods, tornadoes, those kind of things. Who planned for a global pandemic? I'm sure some people did.

Kendall Fisher:

No one.

Jay Milbrandt:

You think about how you can shift operations here. You've got several different raw materials suppliers lined up in case something happens in this continent, but it's everywhere. And so how do you plan on that and how do you think ahead? I think we will continue to bring in more raw materials and stock more raw materials for the future because you just don't want to be surprised.

Jay Milbrandt:

I also think there's something with having surge demand capacity and production for these kinds of crises in the future and wanting to not run so thin with your manufacturing that you're on the edge in a normal time, that you can accommodate fluctuations when the world needs it.

Jay Milbrandt:

So those are all things we're thinking about. And this is a new kind of crisis that no one was well prepared for. But we'll all have to adjust some business strategy in the future. I think we'll probably continue to—like our Elastashield, we expect that to be a continued product for us. We actually went out and got an FDA registration for it. So we're looking at that as something that's permanent. It fit well within what we do in our competencies and our channels. So, I think we're also optimistic that this is creating opportunities for our company and our partners. And we're taking it all day by day, but we're optimistic about where it's heading.

Kendall Fisher:

Yeah, I agree. And you said it earlier, where you had it on your runway to plan for an e-comm site. This forced your hand at it and now you get to take that into the future and work with it. And I think that silver lining there is what gets businesses and business leaders and people in general through all of this, is to look at the positive. So I appreciate that optimistic outlook. I know we all do. We appreciate everything that you're doing to help protect those that need these masks at this time. All of us, to really nip this in the bud.

Kendall Fisher:

So, thank you so much for chatting with us today. We look forward to everything that Bedford has coming for us in the future and keep on doing what you're doing. Thank you.

Jay Milbrandt:

Thanks. Appreciate your team too. Thank you.