JELCO, a Cullman manufacturer that typically produces fall-protection gear for utility workers, is expanding its workforce as it ventures into a new product line – personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers.
Philip Clemmons, president and CEO of JELCO, said the move stems from his desire during the early days of the pandemic to help the hospitals and health care workers who were scrambling to locate PPE.
“Back in March, we looked around and said, ‘What can we do to help with COVID-19?’ We knew how to sew, and I had capable people,” he said. “I could also buy more sewing machines and hire more people. I talked to a few of my friends who are doctors, and that’s how we got into PPE.”
JELCO began producing washable face masks based on local demand. The new production endeavor soon included hospital gowns, after discussions with Cullman Regional Medical Center, which placed an order for 3,000.
“We have been shipping hospital gowns across the country, to small clinics, doctors offices, nursing homes and everything in between,” Clemmons said.
The company has invested more than $100,000 to install new sewing machines at the Cullman facility where it has added an automated fabric-cutting machine.
The plant, which opened in 2019, had only a handful of employees in March. Today, employment is approaching 25, and Clemmons believes new hiring can be sustained.
“Cullman 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,” said Dale Greer, director of the Cullman Economic Development Agency.
“JELCO has risen to the occasion, providing critical medical and civilian PPE in a time when PPE shortages are common. Alabama’s medical workers, their patients and our citizens are safer because of JELCO’s efforts,” he said.
For JELCO, the move into health care PPE is a natural evolution. The company produces harnesses, lanyards, pole straps and rescue equipment for people working from heights. Its chief customers are utilities and telecommunications companies.
Besides the location in Cullman, JELCO has a plant in Montréal, where it was founded in 1892 as the J.E. Lortie Co. Clemmons’ family acquired the company in 1998, and he has been CEO since 2008.
Besides hospital gowns, JELCO has begun producing flame-resistant face masks using special materials tit sells to utility companies across Canada and the United States.
Clemmons believes his company’s move into health care PPE has long-term potential in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There 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,” he said.
JELCO’s ability to produce health care PPE in Cullman has grown rapidly since it began producing the first hospital gowns for the local hospital.
“We’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,” he said.
Adding a fabric cutter accelerated JELCO’s production capabilities at the Cullman location.
“If 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,” Clemmons said. “We can program it exactly as we need and minimize wastage.”
Greer said JELCO’s growth is delivering an extra dimension.
“Of course, as economic development professionals, we are excited about new jobs and new capital investment but this project means more,” Greer said. “This is a company being a great corporate citizen and contributing to a better, safer tomorrow.”
JELCO is the second Cullman company to see long-term potential in PPE production. 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 masks.
HomTex is investing more than $5 million and hiring 120 workers to become a permanent supplier of pleated 3-ply surgical masks.
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 state’s economic development efforts.
This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.