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April 15, 2021

How a Maine maker of COVID swabs hit the ground running in Tennessee

Photo / Tim Greenway Scott Wellman, general manager of Puritan Medical Products, in the foam swab production area at the Pittsfield operations.
a group of five people, all white, two women and three men, standing in a large empty industrial room with a backdrop behind them that has logos for puritan medical products and tennessee department of economic and community development Courtesy / Puritan Medical Products Puritan Medical Products officials traveled to Tennessee this week to officially announce expansion to an Orlinda, Tenn., manufacturing plant. From left, Virginia Templet, director of marketing; Timothy Templet, executive vice president of Global sales; Scott Wellman, general manager; Kristy Rizzitello, director of human resources; David Perkins, senior operations project manager.

Scott Wellman, general manager of Puritan Medical Products, brought along Maine-brewed Bissell Brothers beer as an offering to local officials in Tennessee. 

But it was Tennessee officials that rolled out the welcome mat for the Guilford-based maker of swabs used in COVID-19 tests.

It's been a whirlwind past year for Puritan, which had already received more than $140 million in government funding to establish factories to produce millions of swabs. It has already built out two factories in Pittsfield to supplement production at its Guilford plant. Earlier this spring, the federal government awarded Puritan another $146.8 million under the Defense Production Act of 1950 to establish a factory that would be more centrally located in the U.S. 

This week, Puritan officials were part of a ceremony led by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee unveiling the Orlinda, Tenn., site where Puritan will retrofit a former auto parts distribution warehouse as a swab factory.

Shortly after the ceremony, Mainebiz caught up with Wellman and Executive Vice President of Sales Timothy Templet in a Zoom call to talk about the progress and how it will fit out the factory.

The Tennessee site

Orlinda is about 45 minutes north of Nashville, but more significantly is on I-65, which has emerged in the past few decades as a key manufacturing corridor, linking the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico — Chicago, Gary, Ind.; Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky.; Nashville; Birmingham and Mobile, Ala.

"The government wanted us to diversify, geographically," Wellman said. 

Texas and Wisconsin were suggested, but Wellman said Tennessee quickly proved to be the best option. 

I-65 has already made its mark with automakers, from Subaru's assembly plant in Lafayette, Ind., to Nissan's Smyrna, Tenn., factory to Mercedes' plant in Vance, Ala., near Birmingham. 

The region is easily accessible for major trucking routes and is close to UPS and FedEx shipping hubs. 

Critically, for COVID-19 products, it is within a few hours of a sterilization plant in Indiana. 

Templet said this was a key factor. 

"It's four hours to a sterilization plant in Indiana," he said. "We had to consider sterilization." From Maine, the nearest sterilization plant is in Massachusetts, though Puritan products have also been shipped as far as Atlanta for sterilization. 

Puritan also has customers on the West Coast that will be better served by this location. 

Puritan found the space it needed with a 400,000-square-foot industrial building that had previously been used by Dorman Products, an auto parts distributor that moved to larger quarters in the region.

Both the state of Tennessee and Robertson County offered incentives, which will include a nine-year payment-in-lieu of tax agreement, a development program known as PILOT, approved by the Robertson County Economic Development Board.

"We will take advantage of incentives being offered," Wellman said, adding: "We didn’t go into it to see which state has best incentives." 

He cited priorities of having a good workforce, a large enough site and nearby transportation and infrastructure.

Once the plant is up and running late this year, it will significantly step up production from the 100 million swabs a month produced at Maine sites.

The fit out

Cianbro, Maine's largest construction company, already worked with Puritan on its two factories in Pittsfield, where the contractor is based. Cianbro, which has 4,000 employees and operations in 40 states, will again be general contractor on the Tennessee plant. 

The government's $146.8 million will cover the construction, retrofit, mechanical systems, electrical work, Wellman said. it will not include the cost of the building or the factory equipment. Total investment in the plant is expected to be $220 million.

The site is expected to be ready by the end of the year. 

The workforce

In Maine, Puritan has 1,400 employees, the majority of whom have been hired in the past year. While it is still ramping up operations in Maine, Puritan for now has 500 employees in Guilford, 400 at the plant at new plant at 129 N. Main in Pittsfield and 325 at the second new factory in Pittsfield. Neither Pittsfield plant is at full capacity yet. 

"Our HR function has already grown tremendously in Maine," Wellman said. 

But Puritan will again be in the position of recruiting and training a major workforce of 625 people for the Orlinda operation.

Puritan is addressing top management positions first, but the overall jobs will cover every role in the factory, including HR director and site director, as well as engineers, production managers, machine operators, automation technicians, planners, quality managers, to name just some of the positions.

HR Director Kristy Rizzitello, who was part of the team of Puritan executives in Tennessee this week, will lead the hiring effort. 

Tennessee offers a well-trained workforce, both Wellman and Templet said.

"It's a growing area and will support the growth we need," Wellman said.

They cited the Volunteer State's technical education process and investment in community colleges. The state also has training program known as TCAP, or Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, a standardized testing system administered in the public schools. 

"That allows us to have employees that are trained to a higher level than you’d see in other states," Wellman said.

Templet added: "They're being trained in the same robotics you’d see in our Pittsfield factories. Tennessee has a lot of pride in that kind of education."

In the Zoom call and in a press release this week, Templet emphasized that Maine is Puritan's headquarters and home. 

“As Puritan continues to navigate this pandemic, we are proud to announce new expansion plans, extending our national presence into the great state of Tennessee. We will always keep our headquarters in Maine, and we value the hard work of our Maine employees who have helped position us for growth and success,” he said in the news release.

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April 15, 2021

Congrats on your continued success! I read that Puritan had worked with Maine-based KMA human resources to assist with much of the hiring of your facilities in Maine. Did you form a similar partnership with a firm in TN?

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