Like so many manufacturing companies, when the COVID pandemic hit full force and most businesses were shut down, Tenowo Inc., a technical nonwovens manufacturing company with a subsidiary in Lincolnton, struggled. Tenowo is primarily known for producing nonwovens for the automotive industry, as well as other industrial applications.
“We’re very focused on the automobile industry and when COVID hit, basically the car manufacturers completely shut down,” Chris Peart, the president and chief executive officer of Tenowo said. “We probably had a six-week period where there was zero demand for most of our products here. Obviously, that was a difficult time.”
Staff at the Lincolnton location set to work to find new opportunities. The team started by analyzing products that they already manufactured. Under normal circumstances, Tenowo fabricates nonwovens that are resistant to liquids such as water and hydrocarbons. As it turned out, these attributes have similar characteristics to certain medical products, such as isolation gowns. A product that can repel water or oil, could also repel blood and other body fluids which would make it desirable in the medical field.
There was an extreme shortage of personal protection equipment during the peak of the pandemic. Because of blocked supply chains from China, companies were desperate for medical-grade material. A chance email written by Brandon Ratcliffe, vice president of sales to an Internet board opened up what could turn into a whole new product line for Tenowo. At that time, Tenowo was working on unique N95 face mask material. Ratcliff put on the message board that they could make it and asked if there was any interest.
“My inbox started blowing up with inquiries for face mask material and also for gown material,” he said. “We knew there’d be a demand for it. It turned out that particular [face mask] material didn’t do as well in the marketplace because the price and performance wasn’t exactly what the market wanted.”
However, it was discovered that a particular family of products that Tenowo manufactures, “ZETACOUSTIC,” which under normal circumstances functions to help resist noise, would fit the bill for isolation gowns.
“This particular product has a different pore structure than our normal products,” Peart said. “The pore structure which helps to dampen sound also helps to resist fluid penetration. We determined we already had a base to make a product that could go into medical applications. After the lab team did all the testing, they went to the next step and re-engineered it so that it would work in a gown material.”
This took two or three weeks of intense product development and trials. Ratcliffe negotiated a contract with McKesson, a partner of a large Fortune 500 retailer that does a lot of distribution of pharmaceuticals and PPE, for gown material to be made by Tenowo. This ultimately resulted in the company being able to bring most of their employees back to produce the material. Within a few weeks, Tenowo went from an automobile materials supplier to running lines for PPE. The company was shipping truckloads of the material to the New York City Economic Development Corporation , which arranged for a group of cut and sew vendors in the city to make the gowns.
“The ingenuity and drive of the team here to define those opportunities and then to figure how we could completely change how we make our products in order to make the medical product is commendable,” Peart said. “We’re now back to automotive, but the market is not very strong. We’re still developing gown fabric. I think a lot of states and the federal government were unprepared for what happened so there was a massive spike in demand for the material. Now things have settled a little and we don’t quite have the urgency to get the material out into the market. I do anticipate that we will still continue to supply medical products. It could be a game changer for us eventually. It’ll at least give us another market to pursue to help diversify the company for the future.”
Tenowo has had a plant in Lincolnton for 28 years now. They are actively seeking new employees for their operations. As a company they offer excellent benefits, according to Peart. For more information, visit https://www.tenowo.com.