Martial arts manufacturer pivots to masks

Published: Friday, April 24, 2020 By: Steve Metzer Source: The Journal Record

It shouldn’t be surprising that a business focused on martial arts would fight back fiercely when confronted by an adversary like the coronavirus.

And that’s just what Century Martial Arts in Midwest City has done.

In normal times, the company’s 650,000-square-foot facility hums along at a brisk pace from day to day with 250 full-time employees turning out everything from punching bags to workout mats and even uniforms and coveted belts worn by students of jiujitsu, taekwondo and other martial arts styles. Michael Dillard, vice president of special projects, counts karate schools, gyms, sporting goods stores and other businesses in all 50 states and in 35 countries among the company’s tens of thousands of customers.

While the coronavirus pandemic has knocked many businesses out at least temporarily, Century Martial Arts has managed to retain all of its employees. Most remain in their normal roles, wearing protective masks and practicing social distancing as they continue to produce and ship products. Others, however, have pivoted to new roles. Rather than producing karate belts or other apparel, they’re instead turning out hospital-grade masks to be worn by health care professionals.

Dillard said that because the company may be tuned in a little better than most to things as they develop in Asia, it started looking ahead several months ago to the possibility that the then-emerging pandemic might force changes in operations. Workers beginning in January started crafting patterns for masks on the chance of launching a new line of production.

“We also scooped up materials quickly, because that’s been the main constraint (in sustaining production),” Dillard said.

By the end of February, it became obvious that needs for high-quality masks had risen dramatically in the United States and around the world, so Dillard said efforts were stepped up to begin production of masks on a fairly large scale. That happened despite numbers not being there to support a profit on the new line, at least in the short term. He said workers patterned a multiple-layer mask with an interior pocket for a filter to make it as effective as an N95 mask that might typically be worn in health care settings. They recruited professionals at OU Medicine to test the mask out.

Century Martial Arts started daily production of masks on March 16. Workers currently are turning out about 1,000 a week, and 3,000 already are on back order.

Dillard said the company wanted to “do the right thing” not only in keeping health care workers safe during the pandemic but also in keeping Oklahomans employed. He noted that sales of some items, like team uniforms, have been off by as much as 75%. Notably, though, sales of home workout equipment have risen.

“Our business, quite literally, has turned upside down,” he said. “Hopefully it will come back up as gyms reopen.”

Leaders at the company have considered the idea of continuing production of potentially up to 10,000 masks a week even after the pandemic ends, but Dillard said a final decision will be based on multiple factors, market potential and profitability among them. Founded in 1976, the company has ventured outside its core areas of focus in the past only to return.

The pandemic, however, has changed the world in such basic ways that businesses may be more encouraged to evolve.

“I think every company is asking themselves what things will look like six months from now,” Dillard said.

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