Several manufacturers in Western North Carolina have converted their operations to make personal protective equipment (PPE) but one is uniquely qualified to help during the pandemic.
Industrial Opportunities Inc - known as IOI - has been in Andrews since the 1970’s. It manufactures military and medical products while also working with disabled and disadvantaged adults from Cherokee, Clay and Graham Counties. The company has a unique non-profit mission, explains CEO Tom O’Brien.
“ I have personal experience because my son had down syndrome and was autistic. Chris was working here and he could not wait to get up every morning and go to work at IOI,” says O’Brien.
His son has since passed away but IOI has continued to grow. People with disabilities at the company are able to work as well participate in educational opportunities and activities. Manufacturing is about 20 percent of the economy in Cherokee County according to the county economic development director.
“The community has just been really supportive of us over our 46 years to get to the point where we have the scale and ability to do these things,” says O’Brien.
Its mission has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Operations manager Pat Lennox recalls coming to work on a Saturday in March to design face masks for production.
“It’s been really rewarding because we were able to get up and going pretty quick,” say Lennox, who lives in Ranger.
Andrews has been closed to non-resident as part of COVID-19 restrictions but IOI employees have been classified as essential workers. However, due to COVID-19, the disabled workers are at home. They make up over 20 percent of IOI’s workforce but many have health conditions that make them vulnerable to infection, says O’Brien.
“It’s a wide range of people here. Somebody that has a brain injury or had a stroke. It's just all kinds of different people that walk through the door and we just try to adapt to whatever their needs are,” says O’Brien.
IOI isn’t working alone. The company is part of the Marketing Association of Rehab Centers called MARC. Former CEO Noel Watts explains that the organization was founded in the 1970’s to help bring more resources into Western North Carolina.
“The reason we created the association in Western North Carolina is because we were so far away from Raleigh and it seemed like information traveled very slowly at the time - and money travelled even slower,” says Watts.
MARC is based in Hendersonville and helps connect the partners across the state. It's now a network of 15 rehabilitation work centers across 29 counties. The companies all also train workers and over the last five years they have placed over 12,000 people in new jobs. A study done by Western Carolina University estimated that MARC members had a $9.6 million dollar economic impact regionally.
Watts says many of the other work centers are also partnering to make PPE such as about five organizations led by Foothills Industries in Marion that are making face shields with local company Kitsbow and Dogwood Health Trust. Watauga Industries in Boone is helping make COVID-19 test kits.
Watts hopes that these partnerships can last beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to help bring more manufacturing to the area.
“We’re going to see how we can put our collaborative skills together and hopefully, we can bring some of this manufacturing back into the United States,” says Watts.
As of last week, IOI has delivered over 50,000 masks and is currently working to make more.