NW Alpine CEO Bill Amos stands at his Salem-based company that makes outdoor apparel. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter) DATE TAKE: 6/26/2020
When China started locking down its largest cities over the winter in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Bill Amos started following it closely with the expectation it would get bad in the U.S.
“China wouldn’t destroy their economy if it was not a big deal,” he said.
As he kept an eye on the virus’ spread, Amos started looking at what it would mean for his businesses. Amos is the CEO of NW Alpine, a Salem-based manufacturer of heavy-duty hoodies, jackets and other outdoor clothing he founded after being dissatisfied with apparel he used for scaling mountains in his 20s.
As the virus landed in the U.S., Amos said it began to affect his business. His other company Kichatna Apparel Manufacturing, which provides sewing for other brands out its Salem shop, saw one of its biggest orders fall through.
Almost immediately Amos started looking for materials for medical gowns and masks to pivot his business as the supplies have typically been sourced from China and are now in high demand amid the pandemic.
Three months into the pandemic, the austere facility, located at 8045 State St., is humming with activity. Amos said shifts typically run Monday through Thursday. On a Friday, it was full of masked employees hunkered over sewing machines doing overtime to keep up with orders. In the back of the room hung an American flag. He has about 55 employees and is looking to hire more.
“I think sewing is one of the few industries right now that's really booming at the moment,” said Amos, wearing a red mask and a NW Alpine shirt that featured an image of the Grim Reaper and the words "Gear to Cheat Death."
In the back of the room was an American flag.
Looking out over the facility from an office window, employees moved stacks of blue fabric that’ll be made into gowns for an Oregon local hospital. He pointed to white gowns being manufactured for a hospital system in Arizona.
Lately, his biggest seller has been face masks, which people are now required to wear in many indoor buildings by state order. Made from a cotton blend with a polyester shell the company uses for pants and shorts, the masks feature images of mountains or people climbing mountains. They cost $21. He’s already sold thousands.
Companies like Amos’ have become increasingly rare as the U.S. has shifted much of its textile manufacturing overseas. With much of the supply chain for personal protective equipment based in Asia, he said that the pandemic has highlighted the downsides of losing textile manufacturing.
During the early days of the pandemic, there were reports of nurses having to use trash bags or reuse masks.
“At the moment, people realize that it’s a really bad idea not to have a domestic supply chain for a lot of reasons,” he said.
Erik Andersson, the president of the Salem-based Strategic Economic Development Corp., said that during the pandemic businesses have become increasingly entrepreneurial and community-minded.
He pointed to WaterShed, another Salem apparel manufacturer, which shifted its operations to manufacture medical gowns. Next month, his economic-development nonprofit will hold a webinar highlighting how companies have shifted operations during the pandemic.
Andersson said the pandemic has prompted a new look at supply chains in Oregon, including agriculture. The Legislature is currently in a special session to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. Among the bills being considered is how to increase meat-processing facilities in Oregon in response to shortages caused by coronavirus outbreaks at plants elsewhere. The bill would give more options for farmers and ranchers, he said.
Amos said a federal requirement that military equipment be made in the U.S. has helped preserve some of the U.S.’ domestic textile manufacturing. For the gowns he manufactures, Amos said he turned to a mill in South Carolina that specializes in military fabrics.
He said that his normal orders to sew apparel are starting to bounce back. But for now, his business remains focused on pandemic-related orders. He’s making custom masks and is getting equipment to increase production.
He recently secured melt-blown polypropylene, a special fabric used to make medical-grade masks, from a supplier in the U.S. He said that a handful of factories make the material in the U.S. and isn’t sure about China.
“But that's not being exported from anywhere right now,” he said.
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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.