Jean-Philippe Robert thinks it’s high time Quebec and Ottawa started nurturing a crop of homegrown medical equipment manufacturers — especially if 2021 brings new waves of COVID-19 contaminations.
“One of the lessons of the pandemic is that we, as a province and a country, need to develop some sort of manufacturing sovereignty when it comes to medical equipment in general, including clothing,” Robert, chief executive officer of luxury winter coat maker Quartz Co. , said in an interview Wednesday.
Montreal-based Quartz was one of several Quebec businesses that pivoted to supplying caregiving staff in a matter of weeks this spring after the Legault government issued a call for local vendors amid a dearth of foreign-made personal protective equipment. While Quartz focused mostly on medical gowns, other companies began churning out such items as masks, visors and disinfectant soap.
“Clothing is an essential service,” Robert said. “When governments called, we were ready. Everybody is happy that we stepped up during a crisis, but we need more visibility if we are going to make long-term investments in our production capacity.”
Quartz is among a group of local businesses currently bidding on a new batch of health-care supply contracts in Quebec City and Ottawa.
“There are requests for proposals that were launched, and we’re hopeful we can win some of that business,” Robert said. “When we started making gowns this spring, we acquired a lot of know-how that we turned into a new line of business. We performed something like 85 tests on anything from textile types to assembly techniques. It would be a real shame to let this go to waste and have to restart everything if and when the next wave hits.”
Robert credits Quartz’s newest venture for helping to salvage fiscal 2020 and keeping about 110 production workers in St-Michel and Victoriaville gainfully employed. While the company fell well short of previous annual growth rates, 2020 revenue still increased modestly, according to the CEO. “Not everyone can say that,” he said.
As a private company, Quartz doesn’t disclose revenue or profit figures.
This past year also saw Robert and his crew venture into physical retail for the first time. Quartz — which until then only sold its products to stores and retailers — opened a 5,300-square-foot boutique in Mile End this fall. And although the Christmas Day lockdown cut the experiment short, Robert said the store performed better than expected while it was open.
Robert is now focusing on Jan. 11 — when Quebec has said it will allow retail locations to reopen their doors after the two-week “holiday pause.” Any delay will hurt manufacturers as well as retailers, the CEO warns.
“If the lockdown is extended, retail inventories will rise and our future orders are going to be affected,” Robert said. “So we’re really hoping stores can reopen as soon as possible. The problem with lockdowns is that they affect an entire supply chain. We find that quite regrettable because in-store transmission levels are actually quite low. People are wearing masks, and we think stores can be opened in a safe way. It’s quite difficult to make plans right now. The only thing we can do is hope for the best.”