US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — The Mills family, once one of America’s richest families, has been quietly releasing basic medical supplies for more than 100 years, from bandages to baby diapers. After the pandemic began, their company, valued at $ 3 billion, was at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus. How does a family business cope with a stream of thousands of orders for medical masks, surgical gowns, and even toilet paper?
As the coronavirus spread rapidly across America, one essentially little-known health product manufacturer from Northfield, Illinois, suddenly found himself responsible for the well-being of millions of people. Medline produces medical masks, biohazard waste bags, hand antiseptics, surgical gowns and wipes.
In normal times, these are quite popular products, but now time is very unusual. Almost overnight, company employees began to work around the clock. They quickly increased the production of disinfectant solutions and wipes and, of course, toilet paper.
Forbes’s owners of the company, once a member of America’s richest families, began spending tens of millions of dollars on air shipments from factories in China of vital products, including medical masks and surgical gloves. They decided to reorganize their Wisconsin and Connecticut factories so that by mid-April they would produce 150,000 bottles of hand sanitizers per week.
And all this even before President Donald Trump announced that he was going to apply the defense production law to reduce the shortage of medicines and materials, which made the situation even crazier.
“The number of our orders is off the charts. I receive letters and phone calls from acquaintances in the industry, from regular customers and even those who have never been our client. In less than an hour, I won’t get another order,” said Landline Mills, 58-year-old president of Medline. “Our managers receive literally thousands of requests per day.”
It’s a difficult time for a private family company that has been quietly manufacturing basic medical products for more than 100 years, from dressings to baby diapers. Now the company of the Mills family, whose annual turnover is $ 13.9 billion, has entered the forefront of the fight against the global pandemic. Medline was forced to increase the production of medical products, which used to make up only a small share in its business, producing 550,000 types of products in general.
“Now we only care about the safety of our employees and care about our customers. We do not think about sales, or about profit, or about something like that. We must go through this, and everyone should be safe. And if we overcome this, then we’ll already think about plans for the next 50 years,” says Mills.
Business in the pandemic era
Medline’s campus-like headquarters are located on Kraft Heinz’s former premises, surrounded by Northfield shopping malls and restaurants, 30 miles north of Chicago. Spread over a large area, the office is unremarkable from the outside, but there is a boisterous activity inside. Medline is the largest privately owned manufacturer of medical products in the United States, with hundreds of nursing homes, pharmacies, and nearly half of the country’s top 150 hospitals.
Since the beginning of February, Medline employees began to receive a huge number of letters and calls from various potential customers. “We received unexpected requests from both local dentists and those who would like to export 20 million medical masks to China,” says Mills.
That was not easy. To meet demand, in January the company turned to the US administration with a request to reduce import duties. A significant proportion of Medline products are manufactured in China and are subject to duties due to Trump’s trade war. Many requests were initially rejected, but after a couple of months, when the number of deaths from coronavirus worldwide was in the thousands, Medline received a green light on most of its requests.
Expanding the production of medical masks has also proved challenging. Medline receives disposable masks from the Chinese province of Hubei, where the spread of the virus began and factories were closed for quarantine. Due to the lack of such masks, reusable masks began to be in great demand. Good News: Medline manufactures reusable gloves and medical masks in Latin America, which has not been hit hard by the pandemic.
Medline said its long-standing clients, such as the Mayo Clinic and Ascension St. Louis Medical System, which combines 150 hospitals and 50 nursing homes, are the first to line up the distribution of supplies. To meet the needs of existing customers, the company has to abandon potentially new customers. Now customers can order products “within the limits of the norm” – that is, only the quantity of products that they ordered before the pandemic. The one exception: Medline nursing homes that have never bought medical masks and gowns before can now order them.
“I feel a huge responsibility to serve our industry and help the country during this crisis,” says Mills.
From aprons for butchers to robes for surgeons
This is not the first time that Medline has been at the forefront of disasters. When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August 2017, the company took active steps to provide its customers with all the necessary medical supplies. During the flood, Medline bought boats to deliver products to nursing homes in the vicinity of Houston, where older people could not be evacuated. Twelve years earlier, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Medline dropped emergency supplies from a helicopter to the roof of the hospital parking lot, which could not evacuate intensive care unit patients.
With its historical roots, Medline goes far back in 1910 when AJ Mills moved from a small town in Arkansas to Chicago. He sold aprons for butchers, which he sewed himself. Soon, a nun who worked as a seamstress in a local hospital asked Mills if he could make and sell hospital clothes. “At that time, the butcher’s apron and surgical gown were made of the same material and differed only in that the gown had sleeves and the apron did not,” says Andy Mills these days.
AJ Al Mills decided it was a lot nicer to work with nuns and hospitals than with guys who slaughter animals right at the shelves. So in 1912, the company appeared Mills, engaged in the supply of hospitals. Twelve years later, Mills’ son Irving took over the business.
Their family invented the first surgical gown that completely covered the body, and the first to sell surgical products in blue and green, which reduced glare from lighting in the operating room. They were also the first to introduce diapers for babies with pink and blue stripes, which are now widespread around the world. Inspired by the success of Sears, Irving Mills created a catalog of medical products and expanded its product line from textiles to gloves, medical equipment and surgical instruments. What they did not produce themselves, they bought and resold to customers.
In 1961, Irving acquired Cenco Instruments, a defunct Chicago lab equipment manufacturer producing equipment that can be found on websites like www.sciquip.co.uk/products/freeze-dryers-and-lyophilizers, for example. Five years later, sons of Irving, John and Jim, opened the Medline company, in which Irving invested $ 500,000 (about $ 4 million in current terms). In the first year, they employed 19 people, many of whom had previously worked for Irving Mills. The income came mainly from the sale of sheets, bathrobes and towels, and amounted to $ 1 million.
The business is now run by Andy Mills, his cousin Charlie, who serves as CEO, as well as Jim Abrams, son-in-law Andy and COO Medline. They took charge of the business in 1997, when the company’s sales exceeded $ 0.5 billion. But this was the only year Medline did not have double-digit sales growth: due to problems with new software, the company had difficulty tracking orders. Employees were asked to work on Saturdays.
“I thought it would crush people, but the effect was the opposite. The employees appreciated the fact that we shared with them information about serious problems, “says Andy. After almost a quarter of a century, the Mills family still owns 100% of the business, which, according to Forbes, costs at least $ 3 billion.
In the end, this pandemic will someday end, although no one knows when. Nevertheless, Medline is already preparing many new products for the future. One promising product should be a portable device for skin transplantation. Transplantation usually involves painful surgery and takes a long time to heal. New Medline devices developed by scientists at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts use 316 microscopic needles to pierce and transplant healthy skin to burns or wounds. The procedure can be performed in 15 minutes in the doctor’s office.
The device has not yet been clinically tested, but Andy Mills hopes that it will go on sale this year or at the beginning of 2021. “Our niche is hundreds of millions of dollars all over the world. “This is a huge figure,” he says. “This is truly the only device of its kind that has ever been created and is fully protected by a patent.”
Despite many other innovations in recent years, there is a reason that the Mills family and their company have not become widely known. They have not rapidly expanded into other areas of equipment manufacturing, such as microscopes to suit all abilities or lab testing equipment that could help in the pandemic. The reasoning is down to simple modesty.
“For a long time, I thought it was good that Medline was quiet. Nice to be a private company. The company maintains a level of modesty, and we don’t lift our nose, “says Abrams.
“I would not want the company to attract additional attention just because of the global pandemic,” adds Mills. “I am extremely grateful to our staff for working tirelessly to ensure faster delivery, and we are especially grateful to healthcare workers who are at the forefront in the fight against COVID-19.”
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