New Balance’s factories have cranked out running shoes in New England for decades, while nearly all of the industry’s manufacturing work left these shores.
Now, the Boston company is reaching critical mass here with another product that long ago became the province of overseas factories: face masks.
New Balance has produced more than one million masks since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Massachusetts in March, at one point churning out 100,000 a week from its plants in Lawrence and Norridgewock, Maine. (The Maine plant has reverted back to making shoes.) The company planned to announce the milestone on Tuesday, timed to Governor Charlie Baker’s visit to the Lawrence factory.
Unlike with running shoes, New Balance now has plenty of company in the business of producing masks, face shields, gowns, and other kinds of personal protective equipment.
In the early days of the pandemic, the Baker administration established the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team, a task force of state officials and academic experts that helped manufacturers of all sizes pivot to meet the urgent need for PPE.
At first, the focus was on health care workers and hospitals. In many cases, companies donated masks or sold them at break-even prices. But now, New Balance and other manufacturers are seeing a business opportunity open up as the state adjusts to a new world, with safeguards needed against the coronavirus at every turn. Hospitals will still buy plenty of PPE. But so will businesses, schools, and consumers.
Sure, COVID-19 took its toll on manufacturing jobs, as it did in many sectors: Production at numerous factories was scaled back for health reasons, or because of a decrease in demand, or both. But the leadership shown by the state’s advanced manufacturing sector during the pandemic represents a rare bright spot amid all the gloom.
The Baker administration says more than 700 companies, including 450 in Massachusetts, have approached the emergency response team about branching out into PPE. About 50 have been identified as having the capacity to pivot quickly to do so, and 15 have received a total of $9.5 million so far in training and equipment grants to make the shift. To date, companies working through the state program have made more than 4 million pieces of PPE.
New Balance, which reported $4 billion in revenue last year, might be the biggest of the bunch. Chief executive Joe Preston said he has been impressed with the entrepreneurial approach his team took. The company developed a mask prototype within a week in March, he said, and then ramped up production in Lawrence right away. It now expects to make about 40,000 masks a week in Lawrence. Some will be sold in three-packs, directly to consumers on New Balance’s website, starting this week. The company plans to start selling a mask for athletes in the coming weeks.
New Balance furloughed a good portion of its 1,300-person manufacturing workforce in Maine and Massachusetts in early April. Some returned for the mask work, while more have been making shoes since the company reopened two other plants in Maine. (Even with those plants running, New Balance is still making most of its shoes overseas.) New Balance won’t say exactly how many are on the job, but it has been slow in bringing them back; its New England plants have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, at another Lawrence factory, employment has actually grown because of the need for PPE.
Brenna Schneider, chief executive of 99Degrees, said her athletic apparel company now employs 207 people, up from 151 before the pandemic. The manufacturer doubled its space and put its sewing equipment and expertise to use to make gowns for health care workers. Schneider said she has orders lined up to make 2.5 million gowns through the end of August.
99Degrees has resumed its regular apparel production, but Schneider expects gowns will be an important part of her future business. She has applied for training and equipment-purchasing grants from the state to help cover costs.
Schneider anticipates a day when policy makers in Washington will require that a certain amount of PPE be made in the United States, much as the Berry Amendment requires domestic production for military contracts now.
Dozens of Massachusetts companies have made a swift shift to PPE production. Some, such as Universal Plastics in Holyoke, were already in the medical business. But others are new to it: Boston-based Lovepop, for example, went from making whimsical 3-D greeting cards to face shields almost overnight.
For too long, the manufacturing sector has shed jobs to lower-cost locations overseas. The pandemic, however, is underscoring the importance and the economic potential of making products here instead.