May 05, 2020

Sign of the times: inside a signage business' shift to life-saving face shields

Brad Hertz believed in his team’s ability to design and fill the need for a vital piece of frontline equipment – he was right.

Grappling with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, Brad Hertz, co-owner of Regina’s Sleek Signs, made the difficult choice to layoff or reduce hours for all 32 staff — including the CEO. The large-format digital printing company, often solicited to create towering, high-impact signage, saw its sales slow to a crawl, and like many other Canadian businesses, they looked to simply survive. Striving to stay afloat, Brad sought opportunities to pivot. He found one on the frontlines of the pandemic response.

“I was looking to produce a new product for three reasons: to help with the pandemic, get my employees back to work, and ensure my company is financially viable, and not burdened with debt or interest payments, after this is over,” he says.

 

Necessity for all

A way forward came with the worldwide, critical need for medical-grade facemasks used by healthcare workers when treating COVID-19 patients. Sleek Sign’s own state-of-the-art tools - including two idle digital flatbed Swiss Zünd cutters, a team of designers and shipping staff as well as a 23,000 square-foot facility - gave Brad everything he needed to produce the vital personal protective equipment. Sourcing raw materials would be the final challenge. “Most face shields have seven or eight raw inputs,” he explains. “Some being Velcro, foam, elastic and glue. I tried to buy $25,000 worth of foam to start producing face shields and was told there was none available for eight to 12 weeks.”

Convening with Sleek Sign’s CEO Carl Weger and his technical staff, the team worked to reduce raw inputs from several to one, a flexible yet durable polycarbonate material cut into an adjustable headband and shield. The entire system requires no screws or glue, and the two parts ship unassembled to allow for flat packing. Once delivered to a medical professional, the headband and shield is joined by hand in less than a minute. And by virtue of their single-material construction, the shields can be easily disinfected — a difficult task for models composed of foam or elastic parts.

 

Ramping up under lockdown

With final design in hand, and under the newly minted banner of Second Barrier Face Shields, Brad and his team secured a Class 1 Medical Device Licence from Health Canada. The designation allows them to manufacture and distribute the shields, but also serves as a reminder of the pandemic’s severity – Sleek Signs’ facility is now operating under almost total lockdown to minimize health risk. “Right now, the delivery driver doesn’t come into our building. We screen everyone — they have their temperature taken and they have to certify that they haven’t been out of the country,” explains Brad. “The days of coming to the shop and going for a tour are over.”

 

Right place, right time, right product

Buoyed by almost immediate interest from governments and healthcare agencies — including an order of 5,000 units from the City of Boston — Brad credits Saskatchewan ingenuity, a talented team and good instincts for the company’s overnight pivot. “We took a chance,” he explains. “We ordered $50,000 of raw input material without one sale in place. We thought we could make it work, and we have made it work.”

Despite Brad’s entrepreneurial gain and the fact that healthcare workers praise his product, he is hesitant to offer universal advice to other business owners who look to navigate the current climate. “I don’t think I’m in a position to give anybody advice because this is such a unique circumstance. We just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right tools, and we have awesome people who are able to design and manufacture the product. It all comes down to having the right people on staff, which we have.” Brad’s modesty is admirable, but one thing seems clear: opportunity is still out there for many businesses, you might just need the right sign.