BUSINESS CTV News | Why a Canadian toy maker is joining the mask-making business
Published Saturday, October 24, 2020 10:00PM EDT Last Updated Saturday, October 24, 2020 10:14PM EDT
TORONTO — A well-known Canadian toy maker is adding mask-making to its business model, in hopes of ensuring Canada doesn’t experience another dangerously low supply of personal protective equipment.
Irwin Toy has been making children’s games for nearly a century. But things changed in March after CEO George Irwin and his wife, Brenda Elliott, contracted COVID-19 following a trip overseas.
“I could not get out of bed,” George Irwin told CTV News. “It was debilitating for me, for somebody who’s an active guy. I was bed-ridden.”
Brenda Elliott says she struggled to breathe and had to sleep sitting up. It was a sobering realization of the severity of the virus.
“We figured that if it did this to us and we had mild symptoms, I can’t imagine what people are going through full blown COVID,” she said.
As the couple recovered in isolation, Canada was scrambling to secure enough PPE for frontline workers and those who needed it most, and had issued a call for help to businesses. Irwin received an email from a company in China that had long produced toys for the company and had recently switched over to making masks asking if Irwin his wife wanted some.
“We looked at this and went, ‘Wow, because of what we’ve just been through, we need to figure out a way to get masks to the people that need it,” he said.
So Irwin Toy launched a massive effort to import masks to Canada, securing more than 10 million masks over several months.
It was a difficult task, made no easier by the fact that countries around the world were scrambling to buy much-needed PPE. They experienced a litany of problems, including jacked-up air freight costs and planes that landed in Canada without any cargo.
“It was like the wild, wild west, and I know that phrase has been used many times in this pandemic, but I’ve never experienced so many things that could go wrong did go wrong,” Irwin said.
The challenges made the Irwins realize just how important a reliable domestic stockpile of PPE is for Canada. It also got them thinking about how they could create a long-lasting solution.
“We thought, ‘Enough of this,’” said Elliott. “We thought, ‘Our frontline workers cannot be put into this position ever again.’”
The Collingwood, Ont. couple set up a new company called Trebor Rx with the plan to produce two types of Canadian masks. The first is the more common three-ply surgical masks, finding a factory near Toronto that will start pumping out an estimated 700,000 masks a day in November.
The second is a new type of mask created by Eiliott’s nephew in South Africa, where it is already approved and sold.
Made of plastic, the PRO+ can be used for a month and cleaned with a wipe, in a dishwasher or an autoclave. Filters on either side of the mask are changed daily. Once finished, the company picks up the masks and recycles the plastic.
The entrepreneurs are outfitting a 25,000-square-foot factory and preparing to hire some 100 people locally to produce some 50,000 respirators per day, pending Health Canada approval. Once operational, the company will become one of Canada’a biggest mask-makers.
The toy business and masks turn out not to be so different after all, says Irwin. They used the template for toy safety to guide them through mask design and production.
“Nobody wants to sell a toy to a child that’s going to hurt them or affect them in any bad way,” said Irwin. “And you go through all kinds of safety precautions to do that and that same formula is one that we put in place for masks.”
When it comes to adapting a business to help fight the pandemic, Irwin Toy is hardly alone. Many manufacturers have modified their businesses to supply much-needed materials, including fashion designers making non-medical cloth masks and breweries adding alcohol-based sanitizer to their business model.
By opening the business here, Irwin hopes to limit Canada’s reliance on offshore production, which can be both fickle and expensive.
“We automatically off-shored everything when we didn’t have to. And I think COVID is going to get people thinking about what really we can bring back,” said Irwin.
And even with just pending federal approval, the couple says they’ve already received international interest.
“We have orders for masks in Canada, the United States, Australia, and the Caribbean. And they’re all waiting for us to get the Health Canada nod,” Irwin said.
Brenda Elliott said that, for her, the decision had everything to do with helping the frontline workers most at risk of catching the virus.
Mask suppliers say they have PPE available — and not at inflated prices
May 1, 2020
TORONTO — Ten days ago, Irwin Toy made a dramatic and urgent shift. Instead of just selling dolls and trucks, the Canadian company now sells medical-grade masks and makes between 250,000 and 500,000 a day.
“We have sold masks to … hospitals in the U.S.A. and Caribbean — over 400,000 masks in Ontario and a total of 1.5 million to date,” said George Irwin, president of the company, in an interview from his home in Collingwood, Ont.
His company was one of more than half a dozen that contacted CTV News, after our story Sunday night about long-term care homes in need of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) getting pitches from new suppliers with staggeringly high prices –some products priced between 700 per cent and 5,000 per cent above normal costs. Surgical masks normally 58 cents were being sold for $6, and N95 masks priced as high as $17.52.
Irwin says his company offers surgical masks for 58 cents and N95 masks at US$2.90, but adds that prices change quickly.
“We are working 24/7 to keep prices in line,” said Irwin.
Across Canada, hospitals, medical clinics other health services are clamouring for the tools that will protect health-care workers and save lives. But everything is in short supply, and hospital and nursing home stocks are dwindling.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has warned that his province is running low on PPE, and other provinces like Newfoundland and Labrador are asking for help with their dwindling supplies. One shipment of 500,000 masks is making its way from the U.S and “will help for another week,” he said.
However, Irwin says he made calls to the Ontario government offering to supply more hospitals — but says never heard back.
Another Burlington, Ont.-based mask supplier, eSafetyProducts.com, responded to our story on excessive pricing and said costs are going up for a variety of reasons. Among them, it listed high demand and low supply, higher raw material costs, and shipping by air to save time at a higher cost. What’s more, the company’s inventory was drained early January by a rush of purchases.
“Chinese individuals and companies in Canada were frantically buying up all the N95 masks they could get their hands on,” said owner Robert Bortoluzzi. “They were running around like worker bees buying and shipping back to China, ironically where the masks are made. They basically obliterated the supply, this along with regular supply chain purchasing has left most large suppliers with no stock and no answer as to when more are coming.”
Bortoluzzi says he has secured has supplies of N95 and KN95 masks, as well as gowns and gloves, but says despite market upheaval he plans to keep prices reasonable.
“We are selling at a fair price in order to help as many people as we can,” said Bortoluzzi. His company reached out to his local MP and applied to Health Canada, one of many hundreds of medical supply vendors.
Another Canadian firm, Momentum Solutions, emailed CTV News after the long-term care story, offering personal protective equipment at a reasonable cost.
CEO Stephen Arbib says his firm is supplying only large orders for between 20,000 and 20 million masks — sourcing some from China and others from 3M plants in Hungary, Turkey and Mexico.
Governments usually have lists of pre-approved companies that have applied for and passed contract conditions and safety regulations. Many mask makers not on the list have applied to become suppliers during the pandemic, with indications the federal government is willing to fast-track approvals. But some report it’s taking weeks to hear back from officials.
As for Irwin, hospitals are now contacting him directly for mask supplies, which his son in China oversees for safety and quality.
“We’ve been delivering toys to kids for 90-some-odd years and one thing we know is you want to sell and make sure that you deliver a toy that doesn’t hurt anybody, and we’ve taken that same approach with masks,” he said.
Important for Canada: Collingwood entrepreneur looks to establish
May 12, 2020 | New Article
News May 11, 2020 by Ian Adams Collingwood Connection
When it comes to masks, the president of Irwin Toy isn’t playing around.
George Irwin, who calls Collingwood home, has found an almost overnight sideline for the 90-plus-year-old Canadian toy company, producing three-ply surgical masks.
While the masks are currently being made at a factory in China that normally produces the company’s toys, Irwin sees a future in bringing manufacturing to Collingwood.
“I think there is a very viable opportunity to manufacture here in Collingwood, and really make Collingwood a pretty interesting place for the (personal protective equipment) product,” he said.
Earlier this year, he received an email from a business colleague who described how he had retooled one of his toy factories to make masks. It was in the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic, and the colleague had landed a contract to supply the Hong Kong government.
Irwin recalled telling his wife, Brenda, “I think he just hit the jackpot.”
At the end of March, Irwin received an email from a supplier who had capacity at one of his plants, and asked Irwin if he needed masks.
Irwin got on the phone with Collingwood General & Marine Hospital president Norah Holder, who immediately gave him an order for 40,000.
She also provided contacts to other hospitals in the region — and a new business line was created.
“By the end of the day we had sold 440,000,” he said, adding by mid-May, sales numbers should be in the order of six million, with contracts across North America, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean.
“This has become a very viable business,” he said. “We’ve been in business selling masks for a little more than a month, and I see us continuing this business — as well as our toy business.
“I think this is going to be an integral part of our portfolio of products that we manufacture and sell in North America.”
Almost immediately, Irwin said he saw a supply chain issue between the factories in China and where the masks were headed, that the masks weren’t reaching their intended customers fast enough.
That’s why he is now looking to set up manufacturing in the area — and expects to announce firm plans in the44 coming days.
“We’re not naive, we know when this is over that people will continue to buy masks from outside of Canada, but we’re going to be supplying masks from Canada so that we have an alternative source if this ever happens again,” Irwin said. “That’s important for Canada.”