The Business Journal | Written by George Nelson
NEW MIDDLETOWN, Ohio – Personal Protected is preparing to ship 25 of its Quad-Sink hand-washing stations to a customer in Germany, marking the first foray into international markets for the startup founded in response to the pandemic.
The units are expected to ship in the next couple of months, said Jeff Swartz, co-owner and president. Since the company started production of the hand-washing stations in spring 2020, the company has made 150 units, including 60 sold to customers in Mahoning County, Swartz said. The stations can serve 700 people per hour.
Swartz said he learned about a week and a half ago that the patent application for the product had been approved and the company is in the process of obtaining its patent number.
Personal Protected is a spinoff of Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing, New Middletown, which specializes in manufacturing concession trailers. That business basically disappeared last year because of the pandemic. Hitch-Hiker received $125,515 in April 2020 from the Paycheck Protection Program.
The loans were meant to help small companies “keep the doors open” so that when the pandemic was over, “They could get back on their feet again,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, during a visit to the plant Tuesday morning.
Hitch-Hiker shut down for two weeks, with employees receiving full pay as the owners evaluated what was going on and enacted protocols for reopening, said Holly Swartz, co-owner and vice president. While the company completed a few projects for customers, many of the backorders were canceled because of the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
“We were 100% in the entertainment industry. We didn’t have a secondary thing to go to,” Jeff Swartz said.
After hearing Gov. Mike DeWine’s call about Ohio’s plan for reopening, the Swartzes discussed the possibilities for what their company could do. “We put sinks in our trailers for high-volume events all the time,” Holly Swartz said.
Her husband then went to his office and, after a few minutes emerged with an initial design for the Quad-Sink drawn on a sticky note. They developed a prototype within days and began producing the units before they sold their first one through the newly formed Personal Protected.
“It’s a classic example of when a federal program stepped in to help keep these guys employed and help keep the company open,” Portman said. “In the meantime, the company was versatile enough to figure out how to switch gears.”
The Swartzes are optimistic about the potential for their product. Hand washing is the “gold standard” for removing germs from hands and the hand-washing stations take it “out of the bathroom [and] the restroom area and put it in people’s way so they would use it more often,” Holly Swartz said.
Some of the company’s first orders for the Quad-Sink came from Youngstown State University in mid-June 2020. It was during that transaction that Personal Protected got a suggestion from President Jim Tressel – designing them for indoor use – and an introduction to the resources of YSU’s Ohio Small Business Development Center.
“I never thought of putting it in high school cafeterias. I never thought about it going into one of the university halls,” he said.
The upcoming sale to a customer in Germany came about through one of Hitch-Hiker’s contacts in Holland, Jeff Swartz said. The customer initially just wanted a few but the order has grown to 25 units. “It seems to keep growing,” he said.
Portman is enthusiastic about prospects for more exporting by Mahoning Valley companies, including Personal Protected. The hand-washing stations could play an important role in preventing COVID-19 spread in places like Latin America and Africa, which lack the health-care system and the vaccine availability the United States has.
“This would save lives. It’s a great opportunity,” Portman said.
Mahoning Valley companies have “great potential for more exporting,’ he said. He pointed to resources such as the U.S. Commerce Department that can connect U.S. companies with customers or distributors overseas and the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing for companies doing business internationally.
Holly Swartz said Personal Protected used the Export-Import Bank for the deal.
“It gives people like us who have never worked with somebody overseas that piece of mind,” she said.
As pandemic-related restrictions have eased with more people getting vaccinated, the company still receives inquiries about the hand-washing stations, which sell for $14,000 apiece at quantity, Jeff Swartz said. People are excited about congregating again but venues are looking at what they need to keep their patrons safe.
At the same time, the concession trailer business has recovered more quickly than anticipated, so it now represents about half of the organization’s business. Hitch-Hiker recently delivered two food trailers and has another three in production for customers.
“The trailers have come back to where we’re talking with new potential customers almost on a daily basis,” Jeff Swartz said.
Swartz is looking at expanding his operation beyond its 55,000-square-foot plant and moving into a larger space,. But any expansion hinges on the ability to expand the customer base beyond the Mahoning Valley market, he emphasized.
“This is a nationwide product,” he said.
Pictured: Personal Protected co-founder Jeff Swartz talks with U.S. Sen. Rob Portman during a tour of the company’s New Middletown production facility.