Disc Makers, in Pennsauken New Jersey, is one of the few thriving manufacturing companies you’ll find in the battered industrial landscape of South Jersey. A privately owned manufacturer of CDs, DVDs, USBs, and other physical media for independent musicians, Disc Makers is one of the major providers for the live entertainment industry, and has been for 73 years and running.
Or so the situation stood until the sudden and complete standstill that the live entertainment industry suffered in the wake of COVID-19. In the face of this development and the desperate national need for protective gear for medical personnel and first responders, Disc Makers has taken the opportunity to pivot to designing and manufacturing clear face shields onsite at its factory and packaging facility.
I had the opportunity to draw out Tony van Veen, Disc Makers CEO, about this decision to pivot on a dime. [Disclosure: I’m acquainted with van Veen and his company through my own work for a sister company from 2006 until 2016.]
Micah Solomon, Senior Contributor, Forbes.com: What was the genesis of the idea to manufacture face shields?
van Veen: Watching the news Wednesday night with my wife, Farina, there was story after story about hospitals and doctors who couldn’t get masks, gowns, or other protective gear. Farina turns to me and asks, “Can’t you make any of this?” And my reply was “We make stuff. I’m sure we can figure something out!” We didn’t have sewing machines or staff who can sew, but face shields allow us to use existing skills: we can die-cut laminate sheets, and assemble them with foam and straps.
I emailed my team Thursday morning, and they were all over it. By Friday afternoon we had working prototypes, a placeholder web page, and a sales team reaching out to healthcare facilities. Production is expected to ramp up on Tuesday. [A note to interested readers: van Veen is inviting inquiries and comments–and, of course, orders–via a dedicated email: email@example.com]
Solomon: What’s your plan for the rollout?
van Veen: We plan to run this project like a software development project: We are rushing out simple v1.0 products in days knowing they are not the final product, and that they cost more to make than the final product will. However, there is so much of a need right now, we want to get product out there immediately. As we roll out the product we will get client feedback and then rapidly iterate to v1.1, v1.2, and v2.0, and so on. Prices will come down quickly as we optimize our assembly operation. I expect that within two weeks or so of starting production we will have a fairly permanent design, and then we’ll start adding other styles and sizes.
Solomon: Manufacturing in the U.S. in the 21st century is a rare sight to behold. Talk to me a bit about how you’re bucking the outsourcing norm that we see all around us.
van Veen: Domestic manufacturing might be rare, but it is still necessary. The client base we serve needs small quantities of CDs, books, USBs, and T-shirts done quickly. You can’t outsource those to Bangladesh. Success in our field is a matter of listening to clients, knowing your market, finding out where the demand is, and catering to that demand.
As the music business has evolved, we have gotten into other products that are in demand, including digital distribution and band T-shirt printing. And we set up a parallel business to service authors who want to print and publish their own books and eBooks. As a company leader you need to look up from your desk from time to time and ask yourself, your team, and your clients if there’s anything else you can do for them–and then make that happen if at all possible.
Solomon: You’ve been in a leadership position through, if I’m counting right, at least three economic crises, including this one. Do you have any insight for any newly minted leaders out there for whom this crisis is their first?
van Veen: Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have been through several slowdowns and recessions. I’m happy to share what I think is most important:
1. Stay calm–everyone at your company is looking at you. If you’re freaking out, they will too.
2. Be candid with your employees. If things are looking uncertain, it’s OK to share that. Your staff sees what’s happening in the world, so don’t try to pretend all is well when it isn’t. When you treat adults like adults, they’ll behave like adults.
3. Have your priorities straight. This is an unusual crisis because, unlike in previous recessions, people are actually dying. Our priorities are crystal clear: 1) the survival of our staff and 2) the survival of the business. In that order. That means people working from home, social distancing and hygiene in our factory, and conserving cash like it’s going out of style.
4. Trust your team. You can’t do it all. Offer high-level direction, and rely on them to execute many of the details. Meet frequently–daily–to coordinate, but let them make stuff happen.
5. Lead with courage and purpose. These are not times to waver or waffle. You need to make courageous decisions for your staff and your business survival. Costs need to be cut early. People will understand. Not everyone will agree, but if you explain why you’re making your decisions, they’ll respect you.
Solomon: How are you yourself staying sane and steady day-to-day?
van Veen: I get exercise every morning. I hug and kiss my wife. I cuddle with my dogs (great stress reliever). I don’t watch much news. I keep my focus on the most important things: my staff survival, and my company’s survival. I rely on my team for the things I can’t get to myself. And, unlike normal weeknights, I drink a couple of glasses of wine every night after long days of sprinting. I figure I deserve it…
Solomon: What are you going to do when the crisis is over?
van Veen: I believe this crisis will last through Q3 of 2020. At present we’re focused on helping solve the medical crisis to the best of our abilities. We’ll be using that revenue and cash flow to keep as many of our staff employed as possible and keeping the business running. I’m not thinking much farther than that because the crisis is so deep and so acute. But I believe that the crisis will gradually subside, that demand for our face shields and any other products we make will gradually decline while demand for our core products–discs and books and T-shirts– will gradually return. When that happens we’ll shift staff back to their original jobs, and we’ll happily service our original client base that’s been with us for over seven decades.