William Hardy received a begging phone call on March 13 as COVID-19 began to overwhelm the healthcare system, specifically hospitals. The EKU ‘92 graduate from Irvine, Ky. by birth, current resident by choice, is now running supply chain management at the work clothing manufacturer Carhartt, having worked all the way from “management trainee” to senior vice president.
“We were contacted by a textile company that asked if we could help them fulfill an order of protective gowns. Those are in great need and we wanted to help. We asked them to send us a sample to evaluate,” Hardy said.
And then the requests flooded in for more items.
“I received direct calls from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce on behalf of the Governor’s office and the Kentucky Department of Emergency Management inquiring about our ability to make (protective) masks.”
At the same time, Carhartt CEO Mark Valade, a fourth-generation Carhartt family member, was getting the same kinds of calls. “He was called by a doctor friend at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, asking if Carhartt could design and make a protective gown,” Hardy said.
Carhartt can make anything, Hardy will tell you. He’s spent the last 28 years there, starting at the company immediately after graduating from EKU with a political science degree and a general business minor.
The (still) family-owned company, in business for 131 years with three manufacturing facilities,a centralized cutting facility, their main North American distribution center, as well as their global supply chain headquarters in Kentucky, proved it was willing to answer any call for help as far back as both world wars. “In World War I, we supplied the trousers for our soldiers. In World War II, we made the jungle suits for the Marines fighting in the Pacific Theater. We also made twill coveralls for our tank soldiers,” Hardy said.
One phone call to Hardy’s boss, company president Linda Hubbard, and the project was a go. “We knew it was our time. We make the greatest workwear in the world. People knew that. They trusted us and needed our help. We took the opportunity to get busy and make this happen. What followed was unbelievable,” Hardy said.
The first problem Hardy’s team encountered was the fact that work clothing materials, including their famous brown duck, do not make good gowns or masks. “We started reaching out and collaboration both internally and externally started occurring like I have never seen it,” Hardy said. “Our current providers supplied names and numbers to call and we were able to piece together a new supply stream. Everywhere we turned, people wanted to help.”
Hardy was able to put together a new supply chain within a few days with the right raw materials.
Next problem: how do you make a mask or a gown? “We immediately put together a project team that has worked around the clock to design the gowns and masks and secure raw materials,” Hardy said. Workers at four Kentucky facilities and facilities in Tennessee are being “paid a premium,” for their work while still practicing social distancing, and paying premium attention to safety. The company is making two different gowns and two different masks, with attention to quality at the same level as their clothing, Hardy said.
“We knew it was time to serve and protect those front line medical, healthcare workers, first responders, and grocery store workers who always count on us. It was personal as we all know someone on the front line of this battle,” he said.
The company that many know to make rugged workwear was able to create a brand-new supply stream, design four new products, and begin manufacturing them in less than a month. How?
“The demand was real and speed to market was put on turbo mode. The quicker we got to market, the more people we helped.
“We have the greatest craftspeople in the world, who make the greatest workwear in the world, for a family-held company that treats one another like family. I have never been ashamed to say I was from Irvine and never ashamed to say I was a small part of this storied brand. Somehow, in the last few weeks that pride has grown in ways like I never expected,” Hardy said.
Word began to trickle out that Carhartt had re-tooled from making “the best workwear in the world” to making protective masks and gowns. Then Lee Cowan of CBS News called.
The interview last week took nearly two hours and happened over Zoom. The segment is scheduled to air on CBS Sunday Morning on Sunday, April 12. The popular Sunday morning show hosted by Jane Pauley airs on CBS from 9 - 11 a.m.
“We did this in less than a month from concept to production. We all know this is the time for our generation to shine. Together, we can get through it,” Hardy said.