MANILA -- The new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, has without a doubt caused a global economic crisis with the fallout different for every business. While numerous establishments were forced to close their doors permanently, some managed to either shift to a remote set up, or adjust their brand to the evolving need of the public.
A-List Custom Clothing, for example, an apparel manufacturer that largely produces school uniforms, had to alter its production to medical consumables (personal protective equipment, bedding, scrubs, isolation gowns, etc.) to keep its operations afloat.
“Since schools have physically shut down, the demand for uniforms dropped. Because of the shift to online classes, we do not have any orders. Some clients even backed out from the uniforms we already made,” the owner, "Umagang kay Ganda" host and Sports + Action reporter Roxanne Montealegre, explained.
While Montealegre “never imagined” she would venture into healthcare, she knew she had to retool her company to “adapt to the new normal.”
To help her navigate into the new industry, Montealegre sought help from her boyfriend, Mark Luz, who ran AltheaMed Pharmaceuticals, a pharmaceutical company that mainly imports drugs and medical devices for ENT specialists.
Unfortunately, Luz’s pharmaceutical business was also reeling from the impact of COVID-19.
“Due to the lockdown, some of the supplies were held and those have expiration dates. You can’t sell them if they're already near the expiration date,” Montealegre said.
She continued: “Also, these days everyone is skeptical of COVID-19. Hindi masiyado pinupuntahan ang ENTs since it isn’t urgent.”
To help mitigate both their losses, the pair decided to integrate their businesses together and create Project Frontline, a company “committed to providing medical grade PPEs and medical supplies to ensure the safety of frontliners.”
“The pandemic brought together two companies with one goal: help frontliners win the battle against COVID-19,” Montealegre said.
“We realized everyone is affected by the invisible enemy. The virus has really changed our world, and we thought the best way we can fight the COVID-19 is to protect those who protect us,” she added.
Montealegre took charge of the production of protective suits and other medical garments, while Luz imported the much-needed medical consumables such as masks, gloves, alcohol, etc.
“The world is different now. We will definitely not go back to normal but we will move forward by doing better,” the couple said.
Aside from supporting their ailing businesses, the couple aims to “provide opportunities to affected communities.”
CONTINUED LIVELIHOOD OPPORTUNITIES
Through Project Frontline, the pair was able to save several dozens of jobs threatened by the coronavirus.
“Mark has medical representatives all over the country. Unfortunately there was a memo released saying no med reps are allowed in hospitals for the time being as they are avoiding unnecessary exposure,” Montealegre said.
“Of course, Mark did not want his employees to lose their jobs so we got them to handle the sales for Project Frontline,” she added.
Meanwhile, Project Frontline also “uplifted displaced tailors by giving them fair trade and opportunities for livelihood during the crisis.”
“In addition to my own staff, I also adopted tailors from Taytay who lost their source of income after the Taytay Tiangge was shut down,” Montealegre said.
She continued: “After ECQ, I will have about 30 more sewers since my staff who went home to the province will be coming back... I really needed to shift to making hospital consumables para 'di sila mawalan ng work.”
Project Frontline stemmed from the donation drive Montealegre spearheaded in April.
“During the lockdown, I wanted to give my sewers and income and since I really wanted to do something for our frontliners, I thought of employing them to make PPEs,” Montealegre explained.
“From my own personal money, I made 1000 PPEs. With the help of friends who did their own fundraisers, we were able to roll out an additional set of 2,000 PPEs and distribute it to over 50 hospitals. I thought ‘OK na to, this is my help,'” she added.
However, despite already surpassing her initial goal, requests for protective gear kept pouring.
“I was still being overwhelmed by requests from our frontliners,” Montealegre said.
“They would share how they used garbage bags or raincoats instead of proper PPEs. Iba naman they would close the emergency rooms just because they don’t have PPEs. This is especially true in the province,” she added.
According to the host, she did not want to turn down the health workers who reached out to her and shared their plight.
“I don't want to say no but it is hard to commit when you don’t have a monthly income,” Montealegre added.
“We couldn’t only rely on donations. The people are going to have to look out for themselves also, after all some have been out of jobs for about two months,” she added.
Montealegre thought of committing a percentage of her sales to support the initiative. However, since the donation drive was “never meant to be a business,” A-List Clothing operated at cost and was unfortunately, reeling from the onslaught of COVID-19.
“We didn’t know the lockdown would last this long. In the beginning, they said it would only be a month…To be honest, I was thinking, in a month, this would be over, at least may job muna staff ko,” Montealegre recalled.
To sustain both her personal advocacy and bread and butter, Montealegre came up with the idea of establishing Project Frontline.
“I thought of creating a new company and allocate a percentage of its sales to make helping more sustainable.. So even just little by little, we are still helping, she shared.
She continued: “It is really hard to keep asking for money… This way we can also help silently. We don’t have to post our actions. Before since it is a fundraiser, I have to be accountable and be transparent with how the money was used.”
The couple targets committing 5 percent of their monthly sales to the donation drive.
“At the end of the month, I can check how much we sold and then see how many people I can help,” Montealegre said.
“I would ask what they need us to donate but normally, it is a full PPE set with a face mask, shoe cover, etc.,” she added.
According to the host, the medical field is not their only market. She aims to sell PPEs to corporate businesses such as food processing establishments, and factories once the lockdown is lifted.
“Those who are able, can pay for their PPEs, and a portion of their payment will be added to fund those who can’t but really need it. This way funding is evenly distributed,” she explained.
Montealegre noted Project Frontline is “the best means to help the most people.”
“Through the new company we don’t only get to help my tailors and the frontliners, but courriers, cloth suppliers or textile manufacturers and resellers as well,” she said.
DESIGNED BY FRONTLINERS
According to Montealegre, they “constantly upgrade their products” to ensure they adhere to safety standards.
“I really research and study how I could make PPEs more effective,” she said.
“I noticed some PPEs where the zipper does not cover their chin, I was told those are entry points for coronavirus. So for our PPEs, I extended the coverage, and to make it comfortable, I added flaps of fabric behind the zippers,” she added.
Montealegre stressed that Project Frontline does not manufacture PPEs for mere profit.
“I would do so much better financially if I removed the flaps of fabric or durable zippers but with me, I don't want to just give them something I am not confident will protect them,” she said.
According to Montealegre, she interviews all the healthcare workers she donated protective suits to so she can learn how she may further improve them.
“I reach out to some of the frontliners daily and ask them if there are any problems or how we can upgrade the product,” she said.
Aside from securing its effectiveness, the young entrepreneur also wanted to tailor the suits to the comfort of medical workers.
“For example, I made PPEs that had a separate top and bottom after learning from frontliners they couldn’t go to the bathroom when they are wearing PPEs so they resorted to wearing a diaper,” she shared.
“When some doctors and nurses said they had trouble keeping their stuff with them, we added pockets to the suits as well,” she added.
Meanwhile, when Montealegre learned the usual fabric used in PPEs can become “uncomfortable when it is hot and humid,” she researched for alternatives.
“I looked for fabrics that are just as effective but more breathable… I am developing cotton scrubs now,” she shared.
“For our healthcare heroes, we will continue to innovate and motivate. We are not just a brand but a movement to a better world,” the couple said.
As of this writing, Project Frontline has developed seven types of PPEs: microfiber bunny suit, taffeta with silver backing bunny suit, disposable bunny suit, microfiber separates with pockets, disposable isolation gown, taffeta isolation gown, microfiber taffeta isolation gown.
The brand is also amenable to customized PPEs by request.
Various face masks, test kits, goggles, gloves, thermal scanners, vitamins, and other medical supplies are also available.
For more information visit their Facebook or Instagram page.