2020-06-25 | Chevy New Roads Magazine
Business Takes Heart
In a time of national need, Detroit-based businesses once again showcased their spirit of innovation, stepping up to selflessly work toward the greater good.
The pandemic has taken its toll across the globe. And while nearly everyone has experienced pain and anxiety, these critical days also resulted in people stepping in to help one another. Perhaps nowhere has this been more evident than in hard-hit Detroit, the home of Chevrolet. Here, stories abound of people using ingenuity, connection, and heart to raise each other up.
One by one, Detroit-area businesses proudly answered what they—across the board—view as their generation’s call of duty. Not only to fellow Detroiters, but to a nation in need. As it became clear that first responders did not have enough personal protection equipment, manufacturing teams pivoted with lightning speed and energy to provide it. Others stepped up food production. Still others looked for ways to bolster hard-hit industries. Competitors collaborated. Peers shared plans, blueprints and equipment. And Detroit went to work again.
Carhartt: “This was our time.”
The world was shifting quickly and eerily the week of March 16, 2020. Calls and emails began to pour into Carhartt from across the country. Could the hard-working apparel manufacturer, founded in Detroit in 1889 and still headquartered in nearby Dearborn, make personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks and gowns?
Spurred by calls from its customers and the critical shortage of PPE throughout the country, the company began to collaborate with other PPE manufacturers and users to create masks and gowns. “It didn’t require meetings and decision-making to look at IF we should do this,” says William Hardy, senior vice president of Carhartt Supply Chain. “Our meetings and collaboration centered around how fast could we do this correctly with those same quality standards that we’ve always had. It was collaboration and resolve like I’ve not seen before.”
It didn’t require meetings and decision-making to look at IF we should do this. Our meetings and collaboration centered around how fast could we do this correctly with those same quality standards that we’ve always had. It was collaboration and resolve like I’ve not seen before.
While Carhartt initially sent its employees home with pay to keep them safe, once PPE plans and equipment were in place, it brought back volunteer employees who were paid a premium to work in revamped facilities that now included daily health screenings, machines moved farther apart for better social distancing, and rotating breaks.
Serving and protecting people is woven deeply into the Carhartt fabric. “We have a long history of Carhartt stepping up and helping out,” Hardy explains. During World War I, the company created U.S. military uniforms. For World War II, it made coveralls for soldiers, jungle suits for Pacific-based Marines, and workwear for women in factories on the home front.
As of mid-May, Carhartt had made more than 50,000 medical gowns and 20,000 face masks for first responders. Like the “greatest generation” before them, “We’re setting an example for future generations,” Hardy says. “This was our time. This was our generation’s opportunity.”
Better Made: “It was our turn to serve.”
The folks at Better Made, Detroit’s oldest snack food company, see their response to the COVID-19 crisis in much the same light as Carhartt. While millions of American workers were asked to stay home, the food company was deemed essential.
“For me, it was always like, this is our duty,” says Peter Gusmano, grandson of Better Made co-founder Peter Cipriano. “Think about it: If the bulk of food manufacturers closed, what’s life going to be like? Can you imagine not being able to go to the grocery store and get anything? You have all the previous generations and they went through terrible things. We’re grateful for the things they had to go through, and I just felt like it was our turn to serve.”
In mid-March, Better Made saw its demand skyrocket as Americans sought comfort foods in light of uncertain times. “You’ve got bread, ice cream, and potato chips,” says Peter Gusmano. “It’s a staple, comfort food. One of the things I’m particularly proud of is that we got to contribute toward delivering people a little bit of comfort.”
Gusmano marvels at the dedication of the company’s employees, 75 percent of whom live within 5 miles of Better Made’s location on the east side of Detroit. The rise in demand posed challenges, however. “We pay a living wage with benefits,” says Phil Gusmano, VP of Purchasing and Peter’s brother. “But a lot of people were really scared. So we instituted hazard pay. We were paying people significantly more to come to work under the circumstances.”
And while Better Made employees already wore masks and gloves, getting enough hand sanitizer was a Holy Grail of sorts. Like many Detroit businesses, Better Made found its saving grace through innovation and connections.
“We actually found a distillery in Lansing [Michigan], and they were able to convert from making alcohol to making hand sanitizer,” Phil Gusmano explains. In a cool twist, the distillery was using Better Made’s potato starch to make vodka before switching to hand sanitizer. “It goes out of here and comes right back now,” Peter Gusmano says.
As a result, Better Made’s 250 employees persevered and met the increased customer demand. “Our employees have really stepped up to help feed this country,” Phil Gusmano says. “Without them, we couldn’t do anything that we do.”
Better Made has also delivered countless cases of free snack foods to first responders throughout Southeast Michigan, including hospital teams overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, as well as police and fire crews.
“We’ve always been a big supporter of the community,” says Mark Costello, vice president of Sales and Marketing. “It’s a simple way for us to show our appreciation quickly and effectively.”
Red Wings: “We wanted to be able to help out.”
On March 20, 2020, Paul Boyer was getting used to being at home instead of Little Caesars Arena. Then the equipment manager for the Detroit Red Wings got a call from CEO Chris Ilitch. “He said that Chevrolet was going to be making masks,” says Boyer. “At the time, we didn’t know the impact of everybody having to wear a mask.”
Chevy had launched a rapid-response project to produce face masks at scale at its manufacturing plant in Warren, Michigan. The final step in mask production required sanitization. Unfortunately, the automaker could only sanitize 2,000 masks at once with its single portable ozone-sanitizing machine. And it had its eye on producing much larger quantities of masks—and quickly.
“Chris wanted to know if we had a machine similar to what they already had acquired,” Boyer says. “I had to tell him we had it, but we didn’t have it in the portable style that he was looking for. But I knew where to get them.”
Because hockey teams also must sanitize lots of gear, including players’ masks, Boyer already was familiar with sanitization machines. He found the first portable sanitizer at Precision Blades, a hockey store in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. “Then I made five calls to hockey teams I know that had the portable units,” he says. “I reached out to teams that were geographically close. I know San Jose has one, but that was too far to ship and would have taken too long to get here.”
It’s not the old Detroit anymore. Detroit is different.
Geography and time were not the only challenges. “Some teams couldn’t get into their buildings,” Boyer adds. “So, I had to maneuver around that. Philadelphia and Chicago were able to get into their own buildings. By the following Wednesday, we had both units up and running in Warren.”
As a result, Chevy was able to double its production and is now producing more than 3 million sanitized masks a month, most of which are donated.
Boyer has worked for the Red Wings for 25 seasons and quickly dismisses any talk of heroics. “I made phone calls to my friends that Chevy is making masks. They need help. They need these machines as part of their process. That was it,” he says. “I just helped add one piece to the puzzle. Getting these machines just alleviated the bottleneck.”
Still, getting the three sanitizing machines was gratifying. And helping is a component of Detroit’s DNA. “If you go back and look at the last 5 to 10 years of this city, it’s all about that,” says Boyer. “It’s not the old Detroit anymore. Detroit is different.”
Detroit Hustles Harder: “We’re all in this together.”
First, the 2020 Detroit St. Patrick’s Day Parade was canceled. Then the Detroit Tigers’ opening day was postponed. Then most of the other warm-weather festivals and events that generated virtually all revenue for the iconic clothing brand Detroit Hustles Harder.
“For us, it was a huge hit, initially, due to the fact that these events wouldn’t be happening,” says Brendan Blumentritt, co‑founder of Aptemal Clothing and its star brand along with Joseph (J.P.) O’Grady. “Anything that brings a large amount of people down to the city, we’ve made our business plan around that.”
Blumentritt and O’Grady saw their friends in the art and service industry take an even larger hit. The now-closed restaurants, bars, and artist spaces were trying to raise money by selling merchandise online. “You can put a shirt out there and sell it, but when you sell it, you have to worry about who’s going to print it, who’s going to ship it, customer service, and a lot of things that bars and restaurants aren’t set up for,” Blumentritt explains.
Fortunately, Detroit Hustles Harder already had an online platform and fulfillment system in place. Thus, Hustle for a Cause was born. The pair collaborated with more than 50 Detroit artists, bars, restaurants, music venues, coffee shops, and more to help those directly impacted by COVID-19. Net proceeds go directly to its partners or a cause of their choice.
Collaboration, even among competitors, is easy in Detroit, thanks to its “big-city, small-town kind of feel,” Blumentritt says. Here, creative and service communities are tight. “We’re all in this together. It’s always been that way. We’ve grown organically through those people, so it only makes sense to try to give back as much as we can to them during these times now that we have a larger platform to do so.
“There was and always has been an energy surrounding Detroit, whether or not the economy or the city is doing well,” he adds. “Detroit always finds a way to make something out of nothing. I feel like we’re embedded with talent. And we’re surrounded by good.”
Hustle for a Cause has been “overwhelmingly successful,” Blumentritt adds. “It’s really, really cool to see how many people have come together to support these small businesses and artists. We’re really grateful to have this opportunity to be able to do this.”
Hustle for a Cause not only helps support its partners in the short run, but also builds additional awareness about them for the future. “It’s really cool to be involved in the heartbeat of the city,” Blumentritt says. “You get the most culture from the city by exploring through these small businesses. That’s where you truly get a taste of what the city has to offer.”
STORY: LESLIE SCHNEIDER / PHOTOGRAPHY: CARHARTT / VIDEOS: TAPROOT