If you haven’t heard by now, VPI industries, headed by Mat Weisfeld, has, in response to the coronavirus outbreak gripping their home state of New Jersey, taken a pause in their turntable manufacturing business in order to make hand sanitizer and facemasks for local hospitals and first responders in the state.
As word got out I contacted Mat to get the whole story.
You may see some quick sound bites about this in other magazines but here, in this exclusive interview for Copper, Mat takes you inside the entire process.
Considering that news concerning this deadly scourge is being reported with minute-by-minute updates, it should be noted that this interview occurred on March 31st.
Jay Jay French: Mat, I had seen some online comments by you last week pretty much stating that you were writing off business in 2020 due to the coronavirus. Tell me what was going through you mind at that point.
Mat Weisfeld: I guess the first thing was that I was getting pissed off at other business owners looking at this as a business opportunity, or, “how are we going to make money,” or going to the dark side saying things like “maybe I’ll go out and get a gun.” I was looking at the numbers, I was looking at the world. We lost the Munich High End show, Hong Kong isn’t gonna happen, we lost AXPONA. Forget about making it big this year…we just have to get through it!
That’s when my thinking changed to, “let’s do all we can to insulate ourselves and protect my guys both medically and financially.” I expected that we were going to have to close.
VPI Industries president Mat Weisfeld.
JJ: Up until about a month ago how was your year going?
MW: We were doing great and our projections were that this was going to be our best year. The HW-4040th Anniversary table was a killer, a huge success. [Author’s Note: I own one.] We had just done a dealer training event for new products which went great.
We had a 50-unit HW -40 order for Asia about to ship. Then it all froze. Everything now is put on hold.
JJF: What was the day that it all changed?
MW: Back at the Tampa show [the February, 2020 Florida Audio Expo] I started to get the feeling like our business was in a slow boiling pot, but the day Munich was canceled was the day I knew (Feb 28th). If cancellations were out as far as May, I knew that some changes had to be made.
JJF: How did the changes then occur where you decided that you were going to stop making tables and start making medical devices, and what did you tell your staff?
MW: At first I sent home all my high-risk workers and changed the factory so that people who remained were [physically] spread out. The idea was to finish as many turntable orders as we could and strictly become (for the time being) an online website selling products. The idea was to keep shipping product until we were forced to close by government decree. Then two weeks ago Friday we thought that we were going to have to close, so I was ready to propose a toast to all my workers and thank them.
JJF: And then what happened? How did you find out that you were exempt from the closure law?
MW: I heard that the law in New Jersey allowed companies that are manufacturers (and that means us) to stay in business even though some of our suppliers from other states are not allowed to be open. I called our lawyer and he said yes, you are essential because you make an essential product. Music is essential. At this point I thought we should be doing something.
In reality we are considered essential because we can retool to make other things. Although that is not a requirement, it is elective on my part.
JJF: So when did the decision to make hand sanitizer actually come to realization?
MW: Again last week, I realized that we had the ingredients for hand sanitizer because someone had made a comment on Facebook that they couldn’t get hand sanitizer. I realized that we had all the ingredients [to make it] because we make vinyl cleaning fluid. We have the stations for bottling it, we had the alcohol, we had the 1-ounce bottle containers. We started to reach out to other suppliers and at that point I said that this product was going to be made by us for no profit. It would all be distributed for free.
Carla Delgado Morales with a batch of VPI Hand Sanitizer.
JJF: Does the hand sanitizer formula have to adhere to certain standards?
MW: We did research and found out that we had to have to have a combination of 91 percent isopropyl alcohol and 33 percent aloe in order to be viable to kill the virus. The aloe is added so that it stays on your hands for at least 10 seconds. Also, we’re telling people that we are a turntable company. We are not FDA approved. We let people know this. However, we have taken steps and are currently following FDA guidelines for future batches.
I’m constantly using the product and I hand it out to UPS drivers, for example. A 1-ounce bottle can last you a week using it four times a day.
We put up a post on the New Jersey Monmouth County Facebook page and were flooded with 500 emails overnight. I knew it was real when I had hospital administrators reaching out to me.
My reaction to these hospitals was, “hey, I’m a turntable manufacturer doing DIY sanitizer and you are reaching out to me?” and they say, “we don’t care, we got nothing, we need you, help us.”
JJF: What does it say on the bottle?
MW: “VPI Hand Sanitizer, free of charge, do not consume. External use only.”
JJF: How many bottles have you manufactured so far?
MW: Since last Friday (March 24th), 300 to 400 bottles. The first shipment of 30 went to a local cancer treatment center, 60 to another hospital, 30 to a local group home, and another 30 for a food drive for a church.
JJF: How is this stuff being delivered?
MW: I am delivering it myself. I even had to meet late at night with a hospital administrator in a parking lot of a QuickChek [convenience store]. She had to go out on a limb because she needs this!
I delivered another batch of 60 bottles to a local hospital and they were in tears. We were going to set up a website and fill online orders where you would just pay for shipping but we have been overwhelmed by local hospitals so we haven’t done it. We have even had walk-ins to our factory and we had to set up a pickup area outside our front door for all the safety reasons.
JJF: Because this has all happened so fast, when did the idea of making face shields come around? How did you tool up for that?
MW: That decision also was made last Friday when we realized that we had the materials left over from when we were making [turntable] dust covers. We had supplies and materials like plastic to make DIY face shields. We didn’t have elastic but we are using the flat Shinola turntable belts as a headband.
Claire Stroby with a VPI face mask.
We are using the protective plastic from our instruction manuals. Any plastic not nailed down, we’re using it or cutting it and it’s used as either a face shield or a full blown medical shield. One of the guys here, his wife is a nurse so she was able to explain the parameters. We made a prototype and sent it over to the hospital. They said that it was perfect. The next question was, “how much is this gonna cost?” I said “it’s free,” and they broke out in tears.
JJF: Can you still manufacture turntables during this time?
MW: Yes; we have a reduced staff but for the most part yes. We split the time between making turntables and the sanitizer and masks.
JJF: Have other high-end manufacturers reached out to you since this story came out?
MW: A lot of companies are laying off most of their employees. I have heard from some companies saying that they would like to help out but don’t know how they can. We are lucky to be in a state that allows us to do business.
JJF: Thank you Mat!