CULLMAN, Alabama â€“ JELCO, a Cullman manufacturer that typically produces fall-protection gear for utility workers, is expanding its workforce and adding equipment as it ventures into a new product line â€“ personal protective equipment for health care workers.
Philip Clemmons, president and CEO of JELCO, said the move stems from his desire to make a positive contribution during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when hospitals and health care workers were scrambling to locate PPE.
â€œBack in March, we looked around and said, â€˜What can we do to help with COVID-19?â€™ We knew how to sew, and I had capable people,â€� he said. â€œI could also buy more sewing machines and hire more people. I talked to a few of my friends who are doctors, and thatâ€™s how we got into PPE.â€�
JELCO initially began producing washable face masks based on local demand. It quickly shifted the new production endeavor to include hospital gowns, after discussions with Cullman Regional Medical Center, which placed an order for 3,000 gowns.
â€œWe have been shipping hospital gowns across the country, to small clinics, doctorsâ€™ offices, nursing homes and everything in between.â€�
Clemmons said his company has invested more than $100,000 to install new sewing machines at the Cullman facility, where it also added an automated fabric-cutting machine to speed up production.
The plant, which opened in 2019, had only a handful of employees in March. Today, employment is approaching 25, and Clemmons said he believes new hiring can be sustained.
â€œCullman is very lucky to be surrounded by companies that have stepped up to face this pandemic and produce the products that protect our citizens and the medical professionals that are on the front lines fighting this virus,â€� said Dale Greer, director of the Cullman Economic Development Agency.
â€œJELCO has risen to the occasion providing critical medical and civilian PPE in a time when PPE shortages are common. Alabamaâ€™s medical workers, their patients, and our citizens are safer because of JELCOâ€™s efforts,â€� he added.
For JELCO, the move into health care PPE represented a natural evolution. The company produces fall protection equipment for at-heights workers such as harnesses, lanyards, pole straps and rescue equipment. Its chief customers are utilities and telecommunications companies.
Besides the location in Cullman, JELCO also has a plant in MontrÃ©al, where it was founded in 1892 as the J.E. Lortie Co. Clemmonsâ€™ family acquired the company in 1998, and he has served as CEO since 2008.
Besides hospital gowns, JELCO has also begun producing flame-resistant face masks using specialized Nomex materials that it has sold to utility companies across Canada and the United States.
Clemmons said he believes his companyâ€™s move into health care PPE has long-term potential in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
â€œThere are still a lot of companies that are importing their PPE from China and India, but what we have is something that is made right here in Alabama, here in America. I think a lot of people would rather have something made here than made in China,â€� he said.
JELCOâ€™s ability to produce health care PPE in Cullman has grown rapidly since it began producing the first hospital gowns for the local hospital.
â€œEarly on, we didnâ€™t have the kind of sewing machines for large-scale production of masks and gowns. Now, we have bought more sewing machines and additional support equipment and weâ€™ve hired more people,â€� Clemmons said.
â€œWeâ€™ve got it down where we can produce large quantities of gowns and masks each day while still maintaining our production capabilities on our core products.â€�
Adding a CNC fabric cutter accelerated JELCOâ€™s production capabilities at the Cullman location.
â€œIf we were going to be able to put product out quickly, we saw the need to upgrade and instead of using manual fabric cutters, we wanted to automate the process,â€� Clemmons said. â€œWe can program it exactly as we need and minimize wastage.â€�
Greer at the Cullman EDA said JELCOâ€™s growth is delivering an extra dimension.
â€œOf course, as economic development professionals we are excited about new jobs and new capital investment, but this project means more,â€� Greer said. â€œThis is a company being a great corporate citizen and contributing to a better, safer tomorrow.â€�
JELCO is the second Cullman company to see long-term potential in PPE production as the need for domestic suppliers of critical protective gear becomes recognized as a national priority because of critical shortages triggered by the pandemic.
Earlier this year, HomTex Inc., a producer of bed linens and similar items, quickly pivoted to make washable, reusable cotton face masks, keeping its workforce engaged as it rapidly turned out more than 1 million of the masks.
HomTex is now investing more than $5 million and hiring 120 workers to become a permanent supplier of pleated 3-ply surgical masks for health care workers.
The Alabama Department of Commerce, under the leadership of Secretary Greg Canfield, has identified the production of PPE, medical supplies and equipment, and pharmaceuticals as a new strategic target for the stateâ€™s economic development efforts.