As a leader in the wipes business for 25 years, Swannanoa, NC-based National Wiper Alliance (NWA) reacted early and quickly—ordering new machines even before the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic on March 11.
“This pandemic has been game-changing for the whole industry and the demand has been unprecedented,” says Jeff Slosman, owner and president of NWA.
Nonwovens Industry recently spoke with Slosman about the surge in demand for wipes due to the Covid-19 pandemic and what’s next for his company.
NWI: Tell us about your business and which types of products have seen the strongest demand over the last several months?
Jeff Slosman (JS): Since cleaning and sanitizing plays such a critical role in preventing the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the demand caused by the pandemic for our wipes is unprecedented.
Dry wipes have always been our main focus. The largest order requests we receive are for perforated rolls to make wet wipes, along with our Infinity Refillable Wiping System. The Infinity Refillable Wiping System offers both buckets and canisters, utilizing a nonwoven substrate that is compatible with quaternary ammonia (quat) and other cleaning solutions. We offer this both branded and in private labeling.
We run substrates that are approved for certain chemistries, and we have customers that are making wet wipes out of the rolls that we produce. Currently, we are making rolls, putting them in buckets or canisters, labeling them. Customers will be filling them with the appropriate solutions, once they’re received.
NWI: How has your company responded to the unprecedented demand for wipes?
JS: Before the pandemic we were running two shifts, Monday-Friday. Now, we are running 24 hours per day, seven days a week. We have seven new production lines on order with the first going online later this month. We’ve hired over 75 new employees and will continue to increase our workforce to staff the seven new production lines expected to be in place by fourth quarter.
NWI: How was NWA able to react so quickly?
JS: Our dedicated workforce stepped up to meet the challenge, as have our key supply partners. All have gone above and beyond what was asked of them to make sure we meet our customers’ needs. We have had some production workers putting in over 70 hours a week to make sure we are shipping to our customers on a timely basis.
NWI: What challenges have wipes converters faced in this environment?
JS: Material shortages, higher raw material prices, longer lead times for raw material and packaging supplies, keeping employees healthy, increasing machine output to meet the higher demand for products, training the new workforce additions have all been constant challenges.
Our entire industry is facing an unprecedented demand for wiping products. Wipes converters have faced shortages of raw material because many roll goods suppliers took their roll goods capacity for wipes and redirected their output dedicating it to higher margin material, which they could sell to be used to produce PPE items, masks and gowns. This created a world-wide raw material shortage for wipes. We have had to pay higher prices in order to source and purchase enough raw material to meet the needs of our customers.
NWI: How is National Wiper Alliance overcoming these challenges?
JS: We are fortunate to have good raw material, equipment and supply partners. Because of these strategic relationships, we have been able to quickly react and meet the needs of our customers. Being an Essential Supplier, it is imperative we remain operational, constantly producing and shipping product. Our number one goal has been to keep our team of employees safe and healthy, in order to ensure we are able to maintain production for our customers. Early on, we mandated all employees wear face covering masks. We take every employees’ temperatures at the start of their shift and we have crews that continuously clean and sanitize all hot spots, as well as the production equipment.
NWI: Does NWA focus on sourcing materials in the U.S., or are you sourcing from all over the world?
JS: Our key focus is always U.S. sourcing but we have partners all over the world. Historically, if there was a catastrophe in the United States and all the mills were over sold, we could then source from another country. This is a worldwide pandemic, so it has strained the entire supply chain. Thankfully, we have a very strong world-wide network of strategic partners. They have reacted, meeting the demand of our 10-fold, 20-fold increased orders.
NWI: Is this for particular substrates or all kinds?
JS: All kinds. We’re seeing inexperienced businesses who don’t know what they’re doing trying now to compete/sell into this area. We’re very conscious of the fact that you need to use substrates that are compatible with chemistries. There are some converters out there right now using cellulosic substrates who are telling people that it’s compatible with quat—but it’s not—it will bind the quat. When the customers go to use it, all they’re doing is spreading water and not sanitizing. It’s scary and it’s dangerous. Sadly, there’s a lot of that going on right now.
NWI: This is not what 2020 was supposed to be like…
JS: I was in China in December, when everything was just starting. In January, we realized what was developing with the viral spread and started reacting late January/early February. We were quickly able to place seven machines on order before equipment suppliers backed up. Typically, equipment suppliers take 12-14 months to deliver new lines. We have lines set to arrive in three to four months. Our raw material and equipment suppliers are great partners—we couldn’t do it without them, and we appreciate the great efforts and collaboration.
NWI: How are you thinking short-term and long-term? Will the wipes market continue to grow?
JS: We think cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting are here to stay. We see the new protocols for schools, restaurants, airlines, and the travel industry as long term. Even if the virus goes away in 2021, wipes are here to stay.