In March, Scott Wellman was waiting in line to get a lobster roll at the Bissell Brothers Three Rivers taproom in Milo when he got a call from a number that his phone identified as belonging to U.S. Sen. Angus King.
Assuming it was a robocall, Wellman let it go to voicemail. But he soon realized it was King himself who had called with an urgent message for Wellman’s employer: Puritan Medical Products in Guilford.
Wellman, the company’s chief financial officer, and his fellow executives quickly learned that federal health officials were trying to get in touch with them because they made a product that was in short supply across the country even as it was critically needed to control a pandemic whose reach was only starting to become clear.
Puritan is one of the world’s top two makers of the specialized swabs that are used to collect samples from people’s nasal cavities so that they can be tested for the coronavirus that has now infected more than 1 million Americans, including at least 60,000 who have died.
That flurry of outreach to the manufacturer has now led to a federal contract worth up to $75.5 million, which will help it to rapidly grow into a new Pittsfield facility and staff it with at least 150 additional workers, according to Wellman.
First announced last week, the federal contract calls for Puritan to double its monthly production of a particular type of foam swab by early June. It’s now able to produce 20 million of those swabs per month now, but will make 40 million per month when the expansion is done, Wellman said.
While the company makes three different types of swabs that can be used to test for the virus, the foam ones do not extend very far into the nose and are designed to be used with testing services such as the ones being manufactured in Scarborough by Abbott Laboratories, according to Wellman.
It has been an unprecedented moment for the Piscataquis County company, which is part of a century-old family business, Hardwood Products Company LP, that also makes things such as popsicle sticks and tongue depressors and which has recently brought in more than $55 million in annual revenue, according to court records.
Besides being asked to complete in one month an expansion that would normally take at least a year, Puritan has had to navigate unfamiliar waters in its negotiations with the federal government.
“It’s a world we’re not used to being in,” Wellman said.
With help from King and Sen. Susan Collins, as well as the office of Vice President Mike Pence and a few other federal agencies, the company has now partnered with a number of companies and organizations to support the expansion.
They include Bath Iron Works, which is producing 30 of the 40 machines for the new plant; Cianbro, which is renovating and serving as landlord of the Pittsfield facility; and Eastern Maine Development Corp. and the Maine Department of Labor, which are helping recruit staff.
The rapid growth has also come at a delicate time for the company’s two co-owners, Timothy Templet and John Cartwright, who are cousins. Less than a month before Maine had its first confirmed case of the coronavirus, Templet sued Cartwright, alleging that he has held the company back by refusing to support more investment in wage increases and equipment upgrades and to entertain outside offers to buy the company.
Templet, who is also Puritan’s executive vice president of global sales, didn’t return a phone call, and his attorney did not respond to a query about the status of the lawsuit. Cartwright hasn’t commented on the lawsuit.
But the cousins appear to have set at least some of their differences aside. Even though Templet’s February lawsuit alleged they were “essentially unable even to be in the same room together,” they appeared together — sitting a safe distance of about six feet from each other — at the news conference announcing their expansion last Thursday.
Wellman declined to speak about the lawsuit, saying he’s “not involved with it in any way.” But he continued, “I’ve been working with both of them closely. We’ve all been working together with the common goal of taking care of employees and taking care of the country.”
He said that the company’s employees, who have been working long hours to keep up with the demand for their swabs, received a wage increase on Friday.
He also said the company had already been considering ways to expand its manufacturing capacity before the pandemic, but that the new federal support will help it do so much faster and at a greater scale.
Once the new plant is running, Puritan will employ all the people there. It has committed to operating the new facility for five years as part of its federal contract, but Wellman expects there will be enough demand for the company’s swabs that it can stay open past the current pandemic.
That’s partly because the country and its health care system have found themselves so short of materials to test for the coronavirus and will want to boost their stockpiles to be ready for other illnesses, according to Wellman.
“I’m pretty sure the government and anybody else don’t want to be caught in another situation where they can’t test for something new that comes out,” he said. “We need to have the right sampling equipment.”
The company says it makes more than 1,200 different types of swabs for a variety of industries — not just those needed for COVID-19 testing.
It also helps that Pittsfield offers easy access to Interstate 95, meaning shipping products will be easier than it is from Guilford, and the new Somerset County location will expand the pool of potential workers from which it can recruit, according to Wellman. Swab production will take place in a plant that made smoke detectors and other safety equipment until it closed in 2014.
In the last month, finding staff has been a challenge for Puritan as it has tried to boost production at its Guilford plant. About 300 people were working there in March, but it has hired about 30 more temporary workers in the last month. The company has also just begun recruiting for the new plant, where the jobs will be full time with benefits.
“We’re moving very fast down that path,” Wellman said. “There will be lots of information coming out about how to apply for jobs. We want to get people back to work.”