In less than a month, HomTex Inc., a manufacturer of bed linens and other items, has shifted its focus from traditional products to making cotton face masks for businesses and people coping with the threat of coronavirus.
Today, the family-owned company plans a major investment at its facilities in Cullman County to manufacture another product in high demand – the pleated, three-ply surgical masks used in hospitals and nursing homes.
Jeremy Wootten, president and chief financial officer of HomTex, said the company is using its connections with Asian manufacturers to acquire fully automatic, advanced surgical face mask production equipment.
The $5 million project will create 120 jobs in Cullman and position HomTex as a permanent U.S. producer of personal protective equipment, or PPE, at a time when domestic production of the gear is seen as a national security priority.
“This equipment will make us one of the largest domestic manufacturers of this product, and it will all be done right here in Cullman,” Wootten said.
“We are going to make hundreds of millions of these surgical masks. The production capacity will be about 350 million of these annually.”
Wootten said HomTex is moving rapidly on its growth plans.
The company secured a $1.5 million loan from the Cullman County Economic Development Agency to cover the down payment on the equipment. It has worked with the Alabama Department of Commerce and others on incentives to accelerate the project.
“Our goal is to start operations in June and be at full production in July,” Wootten said.
Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said HomTex has the capability to become a key U.S. production source for disposable surgical masks needed by health care workers across the nation today and in the future.
“The coronavirus pandemic has clearly demonstrated that our country needs a dependable domestic production pipeline for PPE, and the Alabama operation of HomTex can be an important player in filling a portion of that critical need,” Canfield said.
“In fact, we would be like to see Alabama become a U.S. hub for the production of these materials.”
While many Alabama companies have pivoted to temporarily produce protective gear during the crisis, HomTex is one of the first firms in the state to make plans for a major capital investment to establish PPE production, he said.
Besides supporting HomTex, the Commerce Department has embraced the recruitment of personal protective gear producers as a new strategic priority, and Canfield has been personally engaged in the effort since March.
1 million face masks
Since shifting its production focus, Wootten said HomTex has turned out nearly 1 million of its washable, reusable cotton face masks.
“At the beginning of March, it became apparent that we had a shortage of PPE in this country. We were having calls from people having all sorts of needs,” he said. “We looked at what we could do to support that.
“We’re in a unique position because as a large domestic sheeting manufacturer, we had a large stock of cotton fabrics. Face masks seemed to be a major need.”
The HomTex team, led by the company’s head engineer who has experience in the apparel industry, produced a face mask design in a just a few days. After some testing, a mask bearing the company’s DreamFit brand went into full production in late March.
Demand has been across the board. Days ago, the Commerce Department asked for 1,000 masks for its staff and employees of AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency. Local officials have purchased DreamFit masks. Three Alabama election committees acquired masks for use during primary elections in July.
“The majority of the business is going to private industry like utilities, manufacturing operations and companies that are anticipating opening back up need the product so they can re-open,” Wootten said.
“We’ve also serviced thousands and thousands of individual orders placed on our web site. We’ve shipped as far as Washington state.”
Wootten said 75 percent of HomTex’s production has shifted to the cotton face masks as retail orders for its bed linens and other products dried up amid the coronavirus crisis.
Made in Alabama
HomTex, founded by Wootten’s father, Jerry, who is still active in the business, operates five production facilities and has offices in China and India. The company has 300 employees, including 136 in Cullman County.
Expanding into PPE production means a major growth spurt for the company’s Cullman operation, Wootten said. The project has won the support of the state’s legislative leadership, including state Sen. Garlan Gudger from Cullman.
“This will almost double our employment here in Cullman, and these are good-paying jobs. We’re running state-of-the-art, highly technical equipment,” he said. “Based on the investment, this is not a one-time thing for use. This PPE business is a new venture for us.
“It will be long term, and we’re excited that we will be able to make it right here in Alabama.”
Wootten said he believes one legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a better understanding of the strategic importance of the U.S. textile industry and its production capabilities.
“If anything good can come from this situation, it’s that the country begins to realize that our domestic textile industry has just about vanished, and that has caused a strategic disadvantage in our supply of PPE,” he said.
This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.