If you’re wondering why you can’t buy a protective face mask anywhere in the country for love or money, Brian Weitman ’94 can explain the frustrating reasons why. He can also explain what he’s trying to do about it.
Weitman owns a company called STC-QST, a Los Angeles-based maker of apparel components used to produce garments. Think pocket fabrics, waistbands, linings and such. He works with major brands in North America and ships his products to wherever it is they manufacture their products. He has warehouses in 38 different countries. He is a third-generation apparel industry expert.
“Because I work with the brands and their factories, I’m in a unique position to have the insight into where the sewing capabilities in this regions are,” he said. And he knows he could ramp up production of the kinds of personal protection gear hospitals, ICUs and others on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic desperately need. But there’s a money problem. And a leadership problem.
So he’s been working 24/7 since California Governor Gavin Newsom mandated that non-essential businesses close and residents stay at home, trying to help coordinate regional efforts.
“I know my marketplace better than anyone. I am trying to be the conduit for Los Angeles, but it is frustrating and overwhelming.”—Brian Weitman '94, owner of STC-QST, an LA-based maker of apparel components.
His business has been designated essential. But a financial chain-reaction is keeping small businesses like his from working to help mitigate the shortage of masks and other protective gear such as surgical gowns and booties.
“I know my marketplace better than anyone,” he said. “I am trying to be the conduit for Los Angeles, but it is frustrating and overwhelming.”
Sixty percent of the sewing capacity in the country is in Southern California, he said. The labor is here. But to mobilize that workforce the owners and operators of the small factories have to be incentivized to ensure they can stay in business.
To set up for mask and personal protection gear production, there are large upfront costs, including costs to sterilize equipment, reconfigure sewing floors so machines are six feet away from each other and other costs. Most small factories don’t have the kind of upfront capital it will take, especially with no guarantees of solvency down the road.
The lack of government guaranteed backing reveals a chain reaction that has paralyzed small apparel factories, he said.
An example: Weitman recently wanted to buy $100,000 worth of polyproprylene, the fabric used in surgical gowns, booties and masks, from a supplier he’s enjoyed a 20 year relationship with.
The supplier had the fabric, but because of the uncertainty of the situation, he could only sell it to Weitman COD – that’s cash on delivery.
“That’s the mindset throughout the industry now, and that is a big part of the problem.”
Most small factories don’t have the capital to fund operations, payroll, raw material and extend credit to small suppliers they don’t know will be in business to pay them in three months.
The City of Los Angeles, he says, gets it. “The problem is they just don’t have the budget to pay for it.”
He points to what the State of New York is doing. “They’re telling small businesses to make it happen, and if you’re undercapitalized, we’ll send you money.” Something similar needs to happen here in order to optimize the capacity of the region’s apparel makers, he said. In the meantime, federal dollars have not materialized to help in the efforts.
Another problem: basic logistics.
“There is no clearing house, nobody in charge to answer basic questions such as are there fabric specifications so the masks meet CDC regulations? What’s the process of getting paid? Is there a PO number? Where do we send the product once we’ve manufactured it?”
There are a lot of companies on standby for these answers, he said. He is on the phone from morning to night trying to broker solutions with federal, state and local government.
“We have a long way to go before we can meet the demand of this country for masks, gowns and other protective gear,” he said. “The N95 masks are critical.”
As he works to coalesce efforts, he has in the interim produced small batches of masks, paid for out of his own pocket, and donated them to those on the very front lines in Los Angeles, including the Union Mission on Skid Row and UCLA Hospital in Westwood.
Change is coming
In the aftermath of the pandemic, Weitman expects a reckoning in the apparel industry. “We have chased cheap labor since 1994, when NAFTA was signed,” he said. “That was the year I graduated from the entrepreneurship program at USC.”
As a result of NAFTA, he said, most manufacturers went oversees. “Now we’re caught totally off guard and can’t produce what we need here. That will need to change.”
There will also be a market for reusable and washable face masks. “I think culturally we’re going to change. In Asia, people wear face masks as protection, but also as a courtesy. I think face masks will become a fashion item here as well, and a regular item to wear if you’re feeling sick, just out of courtesy to others.”
Despite the challenges now, Weitman knows there will be a silver lining down the road.
“What I love about Los Angeles is that there are a lot of scrappy entrepreneurs here. They’re going to figure out what needs to happen and get it done.”