Thinking twice, but making masks and looking ahead

The orders are the easy part for Allegheny York LLC, a small manufacturer in Manchester Township, York County.

They have been pouring in ever since a TV news feature on the company’s efforts to make plastic face shields, said Elisha Weir, vice president and sales lead for Allegheny York, which she co-owns with her husband, Aaron. An Iraq war veteran, he is the company’s president and lead engineer.

Allegheny York has enough plastic to make 5,000 face shields, which have been in heavy demand as a means to protect doctors, nurses, cashiers and others from Covid-19, Weir said.

The challenge lies in getting more raw materials — and keeping the rest of the business afloat during a pandemic-induced economic downturn. Thousands of small businesses are struggling to keep their doors open and nearly a quarter of Pennsylvania’s workforce is out of a job, according to data from the state Department of Labor and Industry.

“If I would have known this was coming, I would have thought twice about buying a $5 million company,” Weir said, referring to the annual revenue at Allegheny York.

Founded in 1972, the company makes and distributes hydraulic seals, gaskets and other parts for a variety of applications, including testing kits for Covid-19. The Weirs bought it from the owner a year ago on April 16.

Elisha and Aaron Weir closed their purchase of Allegheny York LLC on April 16, 2019. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

They marked the anniversary of their purchases with boxed lunches delivered to the plant from the restaurant Mission BBQ. It was a welcome break. “I feel like we haven’t really celebrated anything good lately because we’re just trying to get through life,” Elisha Weir said.

When the pandemic struck and non-essential businesses were forced to close, Weir said she worried about the company’s debt, but also about its 35 employees and their families. Customers quickly assured her the company was essential to their supply chains and the work continued, albeit at a slower pace.

Customers also have been slower to pay, in part because their customers are slower. Nonetheless, cash flow is holding up at Allegheny York. As a backstop, the company applied for a Paycheck Protection loan through its existing financial institution, Lancaster-based Fulton Bank, which has handled about 6,500 applications for so-called PPP loans.

“I just wanted to make sure that my people are still paid because, at this point, we’re essential. There’s no way we’re shutting down,” Weir said.

Weir said she and her husband also have taken on the task of interpreting and implementing the various safety guidelines and recommendations handed down by state and federal agencies, which can sometimes spark confusion. 

“They’ll put something out and people hear they have to wear face masks on Monday all day,” Weir said. She then goes over the details and explains that people can take off masks if they’re working alone in an office but put it on when they walk over to a printer.

The Weirs also have worked with employees who have faced personal challenges during the pandemic, which has heightened anxiety and fear. “It’s been a lot of us sitting down and just talking people through things,” Elisha Weir said.

At the same time, she is keeping an eye on what the resumption of business would look like. She anticipates a flood of orders, especially from customers in the construction industry, which has been largely idled during the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has given construction projects a green light to resume work, following state safety guidance, starting May 1.

The face-shield production stemmed from an email she received from Silas Chamberlin, vice president of community and economic development for the York County Economic Alliance. He was looking for face shields for York Township-based WellSpan Health, which operates eight hospitals in Central Pennsylvania.

Johns Hopkins University provided the template, Elisha Weir said. But Aaron Weir modified it to be more comfortable. He also has been designing a mechanism to make the mask’s straps more comfortable.

Allegheny York has sold 400 masks so far, mostly to nursing homes, Elisha Weir said. As of April 22, the company was waiting on WellSpan to finalize its order. In the meantime, Weir has been researching options for raw materials, and learning they are in short supply.

“Everybody that’s doing this is finding the same thing,” she said.

She is worried Allegheny York won’t be able to make more than 5,000 masks. But she also is thankful the company is able to stay open and pay workers — and she is looking forward to celebrating the next anniversary of the company’s change in ownership.

“Next year, let’s hope we have a really big party,” she said.

By Joel Berg, editor of BizNewsPA

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