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Kitsbow CEO addresses Congress about pivot to PPE

Published July 10, 2020
A House subcommittee hears testimony from business owners about ways to improve supply chain resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WASHINGTON (BRAIN) — As the lone representative of not only the cycling industry but the entire outdoor industry, David Billstrom admitted to feeling some pressure addressing Congress on July 2.

Billstrom, CEO of Kitsbow Cycling Apparel, testified virtually from his North Carolina home to the House Small Business Committee Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Tax, and Capital Access. The reason was to hear from small business owners and experts about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on supply chains. It hopes to uncover ways to sustain small businesses and explore potential solutions on how to improve supply chain resiliency during the pandemic.

In addition to Billstrom, the subcommittee heard from Dr. Eswar Prasad, professor of trade policy at Cornell University; Christine Fagnani, co-owner and vice president of Lynn Medical Instrumentation in Wixom, Michigan; and Sheila Lawson of RL Hudson Manufacturing in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. 

Each person had five minutes to give a statement before being asked follow-up questions. So there was no time for filibustering when it was Billstrom’s turn.

“Frankly, I'm not sure if I contributed effectively, but I'd like to think that it was helpful to our representatives to hear specific, actionable requests from a small business of about 50 employees,” said Billstrom, who also provided the subcommittee a 26-page written overview of Kitsbow’s pandemic pivot. “Testimony is often from large corporations and other obvious leaders in the business world, while 40% of job creations are from small businesses. Or in other words, I hope I kept the issues real.”

The subcommittee wanted to “hear inspiring stories of adaptability,” said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) before testimony began. Kitsbow’s story caught the committee’s attention after making a manufacturing shift in mid-March when personal protection equipment was in dire need. Kitsbow switched from manufacturing jerseys and shorts to face shields and face masks for first-responders.

“I don't really know (how the subcommittee heard about Kitsbow),” Billstrom said. “The chairman of the subcommittee (Rep. Andy Kim, D-New Jersey) asked his staff to reach out to me, after he personally heard about Kitsbow somehow. Perhaps Rep. Kim reads BRAIN?”

Billstrom, while admitting he’s somewhat cynical about national change, said he was proud to testify and has optimism about the future.

“Not because the hearing will change anything, but because it is so obvious to so many that the supply chain needs change,” he said. “For instance, prior to the pandemic, how many people even knew what supply chain meant and why a domestic supply chain is vital to small businesses, job creation, and our economy?”

Kitsbow has weathered its supply chain issue by getting help locally and statewide from companies like Industry Nine, Sylvan Sports, Carolina Textile District, SEAMS, N.C. State University, a New Hampshire product rep, and many others, Billstrom said.

“I also want to point out that Kitsbow's experience during the pandemic has been both profoundly frustrating, but also representative of the best intentions of many people in our country,” he said. “People helped to source material without questioning our motives, or needs. That bodes very well for change.”

Accordingly, Kitsbow, which marked its 110th day of PPE manufacturing on July 8 and now sells masks to the public, has adapted without hesitation during turbulent times, Billstrom said.

 “Above all, we've got some brave folks living and working in Western North Carolina, willing to do whatever it takes,” he said. “The team here really did this, and none of us will forget the power of that teamwork. I see it still, as we continue to evolve both our response to the pandemic and start to make clothes again. Our visibility with the pandemic helped us recruit more skilled sewers and suppliers capable of being part of our local supply chain emerged. We're now using fabric from a mill about 20 minutes drive from here (Old Fort). Before the pandemic, we didn't even know they existed. There are five more stories like that.”

Topics associated with this article: Coronavirus

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