Shift from sports to medical gear keeps RI company open

(AP)-Sports have gone dark, and so have the sporting goods stores that sold the G-Form protective pads used in soccer, mountain biking and by dozens of major league baseball players.

So CEO Glen Giovanucci had a choice: Shut down the North Smithfield, Rhode Island, factory and furlough 70 employees, or find something else for them to make during the coronavirus pandemic. Two weeks later, the company was combining with other local businesses toward a target of 20,000 face shields per day, filling a gap in the need for medical protective equipment.

“We started doing this to help save jobs, to save our employees’ jobs. Now we saved another company’s jobs,” Giovanucci said in a telephone interview. “And then it’s what everyone would love to do: help people who need the help, which is the medical community, and first responders.”

A former Northeastern hockey player and assistant coach, Giovanucci said the company’s protective pads were steadily growing in market share, covering the shins and elbows of recreational players and stars like former Ireland soccer captain Robbie Keane and a list of major leaguers that includes Manny Machado, Ryan Braun, Charlie Blackmon and brothers Yuli and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

“And then, all of a sudden, this happened,” said Giovanucci, who is known as “Gava.”

Orders from major customers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Academy Sports + Outdoors and Scheels All Sports dried up. “Most of their doors are shut,” he said.

And G-Form was about to follow suit.

“We were going to have to shut it down — so 40 employees, all good friends, some family. And we didn’t want to do that,” he said. “So we’ve brainstormed to see if we could come up with an idea.”

Giovanucci knew there was a shortage in personal protective equipment for hospital staff; he considered masks, but the company had no sewing equipment or expertise. Hand sanitizer needed an alcohol source, so Giovanucci will leave that to the likes of Jack Daniels and other distilleries that have turned their production to ethanol.

“Face shields seemed like something we could do,” he said. “The two biggest challenges were finding the raw materials, and creating the process to manufacture it. It’s a daily adventure in both.”

After coming up with a design, G-Form went in search of suppliers for the clear shield plastic and foam and elastic for the band.

And then, occasionally, finding a new supplier when the first source dried up.

“Materials that were supposed to be there yesterday are gone, and it’s because things are becoming scarce,” Giovanucci said. “It’s like a crapshoot every day.”

Last week — two weeks after they made the decision to retrofit their entire manufacturing process — G-Form was shipping 10,000 shields a day to medical distributors and hospitals. With the addition of northern Rhode Island neighbors Atlantic Footcare, Ocean State Book Binding, Beck Companies, VPI and Larson, Giovanucci is hoping to hit 20,000 per day by the end of this week.

“We just can’t keep up with it,” he said. “We can’t produce quickly enough to fulfill the demand.”

Atlantic Footcare, which mostly made insoles for boots and sneakers, was given dispensation to remain open during the COVID-19 crisis because it is a military supplier. But President Keith Lonergan said he was still facing furloughs because orders had stopped coming in from companies like L.L. Bean and Red Wing.

“It was literally a godsend for us,” Lonergan said. “It keeps our people busy, and not only does it keep them busy but it looks like we’re going to add employees.”

Lonergan said he was lucky to have the space to set up new workstations, six feet apart. Employees are wearing masks and rubber gloves as they assemble the shields.

“There’s a lot of courage just to go in and work,” Giovanucci said. “People are fearful in any work environment, when they’re anywhere close to a crowd of people, that they won’t do it.

“I see a lot of courage, and a lot of passion,” he said. “It’s incredible. People just want to help.”

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