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Clothing start-up survives COVID-19 through personal protective equipment pivot

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    BILLINGS, Mont. (Billings Gazette) — Sets of dark blue denim overalls have been sitting untouched for weeks at the Bear Paw Outfitters Manufacturing facility.

Across the plant, however, sewing machines are humming and employees are busy. The Billings clothing manufacturer began production only about a month before Montana saw its first case of COVID-19. But, it has managed to survive by pivoting to a recent hot commodity: face masks and gowns.

“It’s been rough financially, for sure, but it’s always rough starting any business,” said Dakota Botts, whose wife and daughter launched the company.

In February, Lilia Botts and Estefany Lucero had already invested several years’ worth of money and energy into launching their business specializing in denim outerwear, with the aid of Dakota Botts. They had their customers, stocked their 6,000-square-foot site with equipment and began training employees to meet the demand.

At the end of that same month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first non-travel related cases of COVID-19 in the United States.

Botts said one of his customers, Laura Lee Laroux of Bozeman’s Revivall Clothing, broached the idea of switching her typical orders of overalls to face masks. Laroux, whose company also manufactures clothing, had found buyers among Bozeman’s first responders.

“It was mid-March, and I was wondering what could I do about this pandemic, and I just all of a sudden thought, ‘Should I make masks?’… I was supplying to first responders here in Bozeman. … I basically stopped all of my production and we started making masks, and I wasn’t even able to keep up,” Laroux said.

To meet the demand, Laroux placed an order for 500 masks from Bear Paw. In a little over a week, she had her first shipment of over 200.

By the time Gov. Steve Bullock announced the March 15 stay-at-home order that shuttered all non-essential businesses, Bear Paw Outfitters Manufacturing had dedicated its entire operation to gowns and masks. They also had already developed a list of customers including Revivall Clothing, the Montana Highway Patrol and the Billings Clinic.

“One of the industries that’s suffered the most during the past few months has been apparel…but we have done thousands of gowns and thousands and thousands of masks,” Botts said.

In the switch to PPE, Botts said his staff had to consider how long the demand would last and how to secure enough raw materials to meet that demand. By the middle of March, elastic had become scarce to buy in bulk and producing masks required Bear Paw to invest in more sewing equipment specific to the product. Then, he had to retrain his staff in using the new equipment.

“We also had to let a few staff members go at the start of the statewide shutdown because they had issues with childcare,” he said.

Ronnie Ziegler learned that Bear Paw had switched to producing masks and gowns and immediately applied for a job. The self-described “gofer” for the warehouse operations is one of 10 current employees.

“None of us here had prior experience in sewing whatsoever before this, but I heard what they were doing and I wanted to be a part of it,” she said.

Botts, who has more than two decades of experience in clothing manufacturing with time spent as a corporate engineer for Carhartt and Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co., operated a 250-sewing unit plant in northern Mexico in the late ’90s. It was there that the Bear Paw brand was born.

“We had purchased a bit of land in Montana at that point, near Columbus. It just happened to have been a part of Bear Paw Ranch,” he said.

Starting soon, the Bear Paw name will be officially resurrected with the launch of the brand’s website that will offer denim jackets, vinyl ponchos and children’s overalls. Along with the restart of the brand, Bear Paw’s warehouse will also house its sister company, Wild Goose Embroidery.

Along with a growing list of customers, Lucero applied for the Montana Innovation Grant. The program, established by the governor’s Office of Innovation, provides a maximum award of $25,000 to businesses of less than 150 employees that engage in combating the spread of COVID-19. In the past week, she received word that Bear Paw Outfitters Manufacturing qualified, and is currently working to establish how much grant money the company will earn.

“We’ll keep up production of PPE so long as there’s a demand, which I think will be for a while. We just want to make sure that anywhere there’s a demand for PPE, whether it’s households or clinics, we’re going to make sure that they get them,” Botts said.

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