We had a strange, difficult, and surprisingly profitable year. Here is a short account of starting in a bad place, going dark, going darker, coming out of it, going back into dark, coming out of it again, getting lucky, and closing out with confidence.
I invested in a brand new website in Nov 2019, and it crashed in mid-December, costing us tens of thousands of dollars of lost holiday sales. (I was actually in the middle of a recording session of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” arranged for 8 trombones, drums, and the great Julius Collins when Lindsey texted me, “Our website is down.” More about THAT cool thing below.) The 12-person website development firm I hired for this proved incompetent, and I ended up fixing it myself in mid-Jan. This made for a financially scary February, as Covid-19 was looming overseas. I was worried.
When the shutdown was announced, I took a chance and designed some reusable face masks, and ran a GoFundMe campaign with the intention of donating masks where they were needed. At that time, my wife and brother-in-law were being asked to do sketchy things at their hospitals. I did eventually donate 15,500+ high quality masks to underserved communities. But early publicity garnered some modest purchases from local government agencies. I brought 500 home to wash one night and spent the next 4 hours untying knots. I reached out to one of our buyers, who supplies clean room products to Boston Scientific and others, and asked them if they could wash 10,000 of these at a time. They said — and this was both exciting and terrifying — “Yes, but can you make 80,000 in 30 days and if so, we’ll order another 50,000 after that?” We weren’t going to be able to make leather goods during the shutdown anyway, and these could be sewn at home on normal industrial machines…YES, PLEASE!
A week before our last installment of 30,000 masks, the George Floyd Protests and then the arson attacks swept through the neighborhood. I had been working for nearly 3 months straight, packing boxes at 4 AM more than once, and now I had to worry about losing everything. My house, too, was deep in the smoke of the fires for 2 nights. I can never explain the fear and anxiety our city and our people went through. I was an emotional wreck like I’ve never been before, and I will never forget that fear. On two mornings, there were fire trucks in my parking lot, actively fighting fires on two sides of our building — 100 buildings are gone within a 1 mile radius. For the record, nearly all of the people eventually arrested for arson were from out of town — they came not to support the protests, but to make the protesters look bad.
We took a week off, and finished the order. I was still a mess. We had back orders, we were tired, and we were both extremely sad and undeniably angry. One of my sewers contracted Covid on her week off, and was very sick all of June. She came back after the July 4th holiday, which was when my other two sewers contracted Covid — “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought. One of them was out for 5 weeks, the other had a mild case and was out for 3, and thankfully all three of them came through in good health. But when we should have been catching up to old orders, I had only 1.3 sewers from June through mid-August, and nobody in March, April, and May.
That’s nearly 6 months of lost production thanks to Covid-19, and we were less than 2/3 of the way through the year!
But there was some good news right about now: I invested the mask money in a very special German-made leather cutting CNC table. This beast scans patterns and turns them into CAD files. It also scans and recognizes the outline of a leather hide. The operator grades the quality zones of the hide, and projects our patterns onto the hide, maximizing yield. Each pattern is color coded by model, so we can cut a sax bag with a guitar bag and a trombone bag, and then fill in the scrap with key fobs or dog collars or whatever. The conveyor moves the hide to the end of the table, the projection system follows the conveyor, and the operator pulls the pieces and puts them into sewing kits for the crew (the projector actually flashes which pieces to pick first, by color: Sax, guitar, trombone = easy!). It can also cut foam with a bevel, route wood, draw with a pen, and cut plastic or rubber up to a half inch thick. It can cut up to a million medical gowns in a week and can handle full hides — it’s an absolute beast. This table will dramatically speed up our production, reduce our waste, organize our production, and I am thrilled to have it. (This guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oBjRmkZzLY).
In August, the U of MN asked us to make bell and instrument covers. I was honestly reluctant, because I knew we had to get back to our normal work, now that everyone was back and in good health. I was a little short on cash from my table purchase, but, OK, let’s make a few hundred pieces and maybe something will come of it. Boy did it! Without even trying, I had orders for 15,000 units by mid-September. “Huzzah! What?!” It took a few more weeks to properly unload these to our contract sewers, and we’re now probably closing in on 30,000 units. We got back again to Cronkhite and Torpedo products in early October. Then my wife found herself Covid-positive and I had to stay home for 3 weeks (her case was mild, thankfully). We had other family members impact our tiny work force via quarantines. The table install took 60 hours of my time the week before Christmas. My kids were home alone trying to navigate computer school — since March. 2020 was not making any part of my year easy!
But I’m fortunate, and not complaining about the lucky parts. This summer I hired a CAD/CAM/CNC engineer to work out our composites projects — these are getting very close after some long delays. This fall I hired my replacement in the shipping and purchasing department, and I just added someone to take over for Lindsey and help streamline our catalogue with the remaining guitar, banjo, mandolin, sarode, pipa, and ukelele bags no one knows we have. I am hopeful we will have a place for Lindsey when her kids can be out of computer school this summer.
We will catch up to orders. We are into September Cronkhite orders (I’m writing this on 1/28), Torpedo is short on just a few leather items, and orders were so low this fall that I’m expecting to get Cronkhite caught up through Dec 1 by the end of February. We should be trained in to the table by then, and gain more ground against the 7 months we lost in 2020. Hang in there, and don’t think I don’t lose sleep over every single one of these late bags — ugg. You have no idea how this haunts me at night and through my inbox daily! It just kind of had to be this way this year, and I am so thankful so many of our customers had it in them to let us work through the year. My gratitude is forever yours.
2020 was a nightmare of stress, luck, hard work, pivots, fires, and catch up. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have not been burned down, not gone out of business, not gotten Covid, and indeed to have come out with some smart investments and two great new hires. For me, the worst is over, and I definitely see daylight. I know not everyone can see it (yet!), but I’ll leave you with the theme I’ve had to remind myself about constantly this year:
Stravinsky’s Firebird at 5:42 is coming!
With respect and solidarity,
President, Torpedo Bags and Glenn Cronkhite Custom Cases
PS: I just got home and played my video choice on a solid stereo, and I must say, the audio quality is a horribly compressed MP3. Ugg. Sorry about that. Here is a better version, but without the animation: