#IAmOpen: The Harpenden family-run business helping to tackle Covid-19 in Sri Lanka

Vortex Designs, The Hertfordshire business helping to tackle Covid-19 globally

From HertsLive, ByAlice Cunningham, Multimedia Reporter

Vortex Designs have their own factory in the country and supply PPE to the local hospitals

It’s very easy to just think about how the Covid-19 outbreak has affected yourself and those around you.

Many of us forget that it is a global pandemic that has affected families who are far less fortunate than us in countries that aren’t always as prepared as the UK.

However, one Harpenden business has been helping to supply local hospitals in Sri Lanka with protective clothing while also providing non-medical PPE here in the UK too.

Vortex Designs normally provide uniforms to companies like Virgin Atlantic but have started to help fight the coronavirus outbreak globally.

Their own factory in Sri Lanka – which they transformed and improved the working conditions of – helps produce all the products.

As part of HertsLive’s #IAmOpen campaign, the managing director, Mike Tozer, explained just how his business is coping during the outbreak and why it’s so important for them to help the local people in Sri Lanka.

A family run local Hertfordshire business

Covid-19 in Sri Lanka. Mike Tozer who is the managing director of Vortex Designs.
Mike Tozer who is the managing director of Vortex Designs

Vortex Designs is a very successful company with a long history.

Mike, 65, explained: “We’ve been in business for 36 years and it’s a family owned and run business based in Harpenden.

“We’re a uniform manufacturing company – we do what you call front of house uniforms specialising in ladies front of house uniform.

“So it’s places like doctors surgeries, hotel receptionists, airlines, building societies, those that want a presence with meeters and greeters.

“We have our own factory which we started up in Sri Lanka five years ago and it’s fully owned by ourselves and that way we make sure we have the quality and controls in place plus of course all of the accreditation, and that has been a great asset to us.

“This is because a number of our competitors were de-sourcing out of China. We do everything out of Sri Lanka and we’ve got full control over it.

“We don’t do what we call medical uniforms although strangely enough with the coronavirus worldwide impact, we’ve actually been making masks, hazmat suits, making scrubs in our factory as well, so we’ve been quite busy over there.

“It’s a relatively small factory, we’ve got about 85 people there and of course we’re responsible for 85 families in the local area.

“We do really, really quite well with the factory.”

Like all other businesses in the country, the Covid-19 outbreak affected Vortex Designs.

Mike continued: “It did affect as quite a lot. We thought we would do a lot better than what we did do because there was a huge international shortage of PPE.

“However, we were not recognised and accredited as a supplier to the NHS so we found it very difficult even though we could make all of this and supply it to the NHS, there were an awful lot of closed doors, likewise for a lot of other people.

“That had a big impact on our business as such because although doctors surgeries and medical practices remained open and they were still buying uniforms but the big demand was obviously PPE.

“We got very frustrated and in the end we ended up making for the local market and export market out of Sri Lanka.

“So we’ve done OK out of it and we’ve been able to keep the factory going, and we’re just hoping that things will get back to some degree of normality within the next two or three months.

“We haven’t had to close. We’ve remained open even though we’re a non-essential business and at least we’ve been able to maintain all the staff and everyone is still busy.”

Taking the time to improve the factory’s working conditions

Employees in Sri Lanka learning about fire safety
Employees in Sri Lanka learning about fire safety

After taking the time a few years ago to improve the working conditions of their Sri Lankan factory, the company have also been able to help support the local community there through the outbreak.

“They’re doing OK [in Sri Lanka]. They had shut down for the best part of five weeks and they were able to filter in because they measured it province by province,” Mike said.

“Our province was quite badly affected but being an island they were able to bring it under control.  

“It’s just been great for us to be able to make products that can also go into the local hospitals there and we’ve made tens of thousands of these hazmat suits, scrubs and it’s about being able to make a contribution to the Covid situation a bit more globally and not just for the NHS here.

“Five years ago, we sprung a surprise visit to Sri Lanka and we found that our garments weren’t being made in the factory we were told they were being made in.

“They were being made in pretty appalling conditions in a factory and because we deal with pretty big companies – we supply Virgin Atlantic and Specsavers for example – it was non-compliant and we looked at this and said this is just not going to happen.

“We found that the workers hadn’t been paid, they were three or four months in a rear of their salaries so we took over the building and the entire factory. 

“We invested in new machinery, we paid all the staff and the equivalent of their national insurance, we bought in specialists to train them because we need to have a compliant factory and total control over our products. 

“So once we got the factory going, we got the local hospital to come down on a Saturday and all the workers brought in their families to learn first aid and become accredited in this.  

“We bought the local fire service in and taught them how to use the fire equipment we had installed. 

“A whole new staircase was put in out the back with a fire escape – it was things that perhaps western companies would actually take for granted and that was missing out there. 

“We’re very socially aware by investing in equipment, doing training and introduced a western culture as far as health and safety is concerned and they’re all benefiting from it. 

“They all know fire drills, first aid, they are very health and safety conscious which we’re very proud of and it’s like a big family for us.

“We’ve now got good local management out there and this way we’ve also been able to retain all of our staff. I think we’ve lost less than one per cent of the staff. 

“We seemed to have trained them so that everyone is really, really comfortable working for us.

“It’s nice to be able to put back into a community that you have had some good times with and it’s not just about making money it’s about the legacy that you leave behind and with what you create out there.

“This is all very, very important to us.”

Remaining optimistic

Mike and the team at Vortex Designs helped to provide high quality working conditions for their employees in Sri Lanka
Mike and the team at Vortex Designs helped to provide high quality working conditions for their employees in Sri Lanka

The face masks Vortex Designs have also been supplying here in the UK have been incredibly popular.

Mike explained: “We make what you call face coverings as opposed to medical ones and we’re making tens of thousands of these.

“They are proving to be very successful for us and we’ve kept up with demand for them.

“All factories are making face masks and a lot of them are mechanically produced now, they don’t require any sowing but ours do so what we’re doing is making a cotton interior and a fabric outer which means they’re washable that way we’re not impacting on demand for the NHS.

“All the factories have accreditation and that way we know where our products have come from, we know who’s made it and about every aspect of the trimmings that goes with it.

“We’ve had to put this all together on our website, we’ve had to do some amateur photography, we’ve had to do some amateur editing of websites, cutting and pasting because all the photographers and model agencies have been closed.

“So we’ve had to adapt with the help of our staff, local models, people with a good iPhone to take the photos but it’s been a whole team effort and we’re really pleased with the results.

“We’re quite boyant and optimistic because we believe that people will always want uniforms. We tend to do a slightly better quality more upmarket uniforms and as long as businesses still remain open and employing staff there will be a demand for uniform.

“We are optimistic.”

If you’d like to find out more about Vortex Designs and see the products they make, you can find their website here.

To learn more about PCIAW®, click here.

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