Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 20, 2020

Firms learn to work around COVID-19

Emphasis on client, employee safety, planning for uncertain future

Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, disinfectant wipes and other cleaning materials are still in high demand.

Back in mid-March they were impossible to find, meaning many businesses weren’t able to take necessary steps to keep staff and clients safe.

For those who could operate remotely, that was less of a concern. But for lawyers, who at least during the spring were still handling court business and seeing clients in person, the risk of infection was enormous. Enter Skip Ireland, president of COS Business Products and Interiors, with personal protective equipment (PPE) and more.

“The legal profession is one that doesn’t stop, like the medical field, and so we put some emphasis on trying to make sure they could get the things they needed,” Ireland says. “Like everybody else, they were looking at three things: How to keep their employees safe, how to keep their clients safe and what is the world going to look like when we can all go back to work?”

As a longtime supplier of the area’s business needs – COS will be 80 years old in February – Ireland says that he had the supply chain contacts locked into place early on, allowing him to place orders for masks, gowns, sanitizer and more even as big-box retailers were quickly wiped out.

“Those historical relationships were really good to have,” he says. “We really leaned on those, and so we got allotments early on. That might not have covered everything, but we had the basics. And we also were able to work with some new suppliers who were able to get their hands on product, and that meant we could get our hands on it.”

He also went in with other retailers on shared containers, so when gowns and other products manufactured overseas got to U.S. shores, COS received a guaranteed portion. These newly formed purchasing pools also bought manufacturing time in pre-paid amounts, and that resulted in a small but steady stream of product as well.

“I wouldn’t say we were uninterrupted, and there were a lot of things we tried to get but couldn’t, but overall we didn’t stay on back order too long,” Ireland recalls.

Some items are still hard to come by several months into the pandemic. Masks of varying kinds have become easier to find, but gloves are still rare and costly. Spray disinfectant, sanitizer and gowns are still selling briskly, but aren’t running out, Ireland says.

“Most suppliers have caught up with the wipes and that stuff, but now we have to wonder how bad this coming second round is going to be,” he says. “I think we’re all going to be better off now that we are wearing masks and observing these new cleaning protocols. That is going to help us during cold and flu season, as well as COVID, so that has been a positive as we go into the winter months.”

However that shakes out, it’s clear that up to now Chattanooga’s legal community, and many other businesses, have benefited from Ireland’s foresight. The early availability for lawyers brought certainty to a very shaky time, says Lynda Minks Hood, executive director of the Chattanooga Bar Association.

“Skip has supported us even before I came to the association almost 28 years ago,” Hood says. “He is the most generous person I know, and he really supports us. When nobody could get supplies, he not only said he could get us what we needed, he also said he could do it at a great price. The firms needed everything he was sending out, and it was just incredible what he was able to do for our members.”

For his part, Ireland says that he wants all his customers to have access to good-quality cleaning and sanitizing supplies, as well as barriers and other equipment to promote social distancing. He and his staff have amped up their delivery capabilities, taking orders to both homes and offices, and are busier than ever.

“We’re going to bring you whatever you need to keep your business going,” he says. “And it’s funny, we used to sell cubicle panels, or walls, that were 80 inches high. Then everybody got away from that to go to an open-office format.

“Now they all need those panels back up to create a safe barrier, so we’ve come full circle. Now we’re just going to keep doing all we can do to help our customers keep up their safe practices until we’re all able to go back to working together like we used to.”