Montana Public Radio

COVID-19 And Montana's Entrepreneurs, Part One: How Three Manufacturers Are Pivoting And Coping

Apr 24, 2020

Like business owners everywhere, manufacturers in Montana are getting pitched around by COVID-19's macroeconomic shock waves. In mid-April 2020, Can Do host Arnie Sherman caught up with several previous guests to get updates on how they're coping. Part One of this two-part episode features Montana entrepreneurs who are pivoting to help their communities while keeping their companies afloat.

Today on Can Do: Lessons From Savvy Montana Entrepreneurs, Arnie checks in with John and Courtney McKee, owners of Headframe Spirits and Headframe Spirits Manufacturing in Butte; Michelle Huie, founder and owner of VIM & VIGR compression legwear in Missoula; and Spencer Williams, CEO of West Paw pet toys in Bozeman. 

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The staff of Butte's Headframe Spirits are showing up to work at the company’s manufacturing facility, but not to produce gin, whiskey or vodka. Instead, in three shifts a day, they’re creating 25,000 gallons of hand sanitizer each week. Courtney McKee explains:

“The demand exists, and we see ourselves as uniquely positioned to address that demand. Certainly, at this sort of scale, there isn’t anybody in a good radius of Headframe that has the capacity to do anything like this. But this has also been really remarkable for our team as well … and our team is committed to serving those who are taking care of the rest of us, and there’s a lot of gratitude on Team Headframe for being able to serve like this.”

In fact, since mid-March, Headframe Spirits’ staffing head count and total number of hours worked each week has increased. They’re distributing hand sanitizer to essential workers in Montana: grocery store clerks, taxi drivers, delivery drivers, first-responders, police and healthcare workers.

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Michelle Huie sells a lot of her company’s fashion compression leg wear online.  But since mid-March, the founder and owner of Missoula-based VIM & VIGR has watched about 50% of her revenue vanish, as the brick-and-mortar retail shops that stock her products have been forced to close.

“Our biggest advocates and customer base are people in the healthcare community, and they’re the ones who really need the compression socks the most, especially during this time. Early on, when the virus really hit, we had some hospital systems reach out to us saying, ‘Hey, is there any way you can provide some free pairs for our emergency room or ICU?’ and so we did that initially. But as a small business, we weren’t able to really just continue to give out free socks. And so one thing we said to each other, okay, what are ways we can help the medical community? And we said to ourselves, well, we don’t have money, but we certainly have a lot of socks sitting there. Maybe we could do kind of a Buy One—Give One program?

"And so at the end of March, we launched a 'Buy One - Give One' promotion: for every sock purchased on our website, we’re also giving a free pair of compression socks to healthcare providers on the front line.  As of now, we have probably (had) over 225 hospital systems reach out to us, and we’ve had requests for close to 10,000 pairs of socks. And so every week, we have been just sending out socks, and I think a lot of people have been responding really positively to that, so that’s been really rewarding.”

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Spencer Williams, CEO of West Paw pet toys in Bozeman, shifted the company’s manufacturing from pet toys, beds and leashes to medical masks for the local hospital. “We started in partnership with Mystery Ranch here in Bozeman and a nonprofit called Masks for Heroes, and we started making sewn cloth masks for Bozeman Health. And we’ve been donating thousands of them for the last three weeks, to make certain that the medical professionals in our hospital system here have the masks that they need.”  

Gallatin County has been Montana’s COVID-19 hotspot; as soon as West Paw has geared up their sewing capacity, Williams plans to start selling masks online to the general public. “One of the beauties of being entrepreneurial and family-owned is that we can pivot really quickly as a company to sustain jobs, create new sources of revenue, and keep people employed.”
 

Production support for “Can Do: Lessons From Savvy Montana Entrepreneurs” comes from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, dedicated to investing in people to improve the quality of their lives. And from the Greater Montana Foundation, encouraging communication on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans. And from Blackfoot, providing communications solutions for Montana businesses. Plus opportunities like C2M Beta, an innovation lab aimed at helping startups thrive. C2Mbeta.com.