Vonco Products dives back into PPE production during coronavirus

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Ordinarily, Keith Smith is not deeply involved in the tactical operations of Kenosha County-based Vonco Products.

“I’ve got great leadership here and they can run this business really well,” said Smith, president and chief executive officer of Vonco, adding the leadership team might get together occasionally to define the top priorities or address bottlenecks.

Of course, these are not ordinary times. Smith said the leadership team now meets daily at 8:30 a.m.

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“There’s so many changes happening so quickly. We need to make quick decisions, implement quick policies, implement quick communications,” Smith said.

The contract manufacturer of flexible packaging products moved to Trevor in western Kenosha County from northern Illinois in 2016.

The company included the medical industry in its served markets before the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic hit, primarily making fluid control, containment and supply products. Smith said the company had “dabbled” in making personal protective equipment in the past.

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“It’s been hard to compete because it’s mostly offshored over the last few decades and so we’ve focused on other product lines,’ he said.

But as the coronavirus outbreak ramped up and calls from federal officials down to individual hospitals searching for PPE started coming in, Smith said it was clear there was a major supply issue. So Vonco started dusting off old designs and creating new products to meet the need.

“We’ve made gowns in the past, but they’re more suitable for a jacket really, rain poncho or something of that nature, now it’s medical grade gowns,” he said.

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Vonco launched products including stand-up spouted pouches for hand sanitizer, isolation gowns, food service gloves and shoe covers. Those products are in addition to its standard infection prevention products, including form-fitting medical device covers, specimen collection bags and biohazard transport bags.

Smith praised the “bravery” of his workforce in getting products made safely and his technical and development teams for taking on product development work that would usually take anywhere from six weeks to six months on extremely accelerated timelines.

“It’s a stressful time for everybody,” Smith said. “The world is different and work is different. We’ve implemented 24 new policies over the last six weeks to keep people safe, so it’s constant change on top of it, so the stress is high. We really need to take care of each other.”

Adding to the stress, Vonco lost about 10% of its workforce when the 12 employees it had through a Department of Corrections program could no longer come in because of concerns of spreading COVID-19 through jails.

The company was dealing with increased demand with a smaller workforce and production ran 24-hours per day for 13 out of 14 days at one point. Smith said prior to COVID-19 Vonco hadn’t worked on Saturdays or Sundays in two years.

Staffing is now back up to pre-COVID levels, but the company is still hiring for another 20 to 25 positions. Smith said he is looking for people in engineering, business development, production, mechanics and maintenance. Vonco is doing virtual interviews and using videos to show prospective employees what the work looks like.

“You don’t get a good feel for the culture and so that’s a little bit of the risk you take on both sides,” Smith said, adding that while Vonco is seeing a higher volume of applications, he hasn’t seen groups of employees coming from a single company that he might have expected given the high number of layoffs.

In addition to the now daily leadership meetings, Smith said he has shifted from a quarterly all-company meeting to addressing the entire staff weekly. His message, delivered with a microphone covered with one of Vonco’s bags, covers updates in company policy and changes in law. It also emphasizes the importance of following the policies to keep everyone healthy. Smith said he points out that if Vonco shuts down, it means the company is no longer delivering PPE to those who need it.

“It’s a domino effect on the supply chain,” he said.

Just as employees have taken on the increased workload, Smith said they have adapted to the cultural changes that come with more communication.

“There are so many inputs that are changing on a routine basis now that it’s comforting to talk it through and make sure we’re all aligned with these decision. I think it’s the right thing and people haven’t questioned it,” Smith said.

“There’s no playbook so I think people are comforted in the fact that since there is no playbook we need to be quick and use each other as a sounding board to make great decisions in a really tough time,” he added.

Get more news and insight in the April 27 issue of BizTimes Milwaukee. Subscribe to get updates in your inbox here.

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