Nick Dinges’ foree into the global personal protective equipment industry during the COVID-19 pandemic has included suitcases full of cash, 48-hour drives to Queens and facetiming factories in China.
Dinges Fire Co. is one of the largest PPE suppliers to fire departments in the midwest. For the past two months, the Amboy company has been supplying hospitals, first responders, businesses and the state with equipment needed to keep people safe.
“It’s been incredible, unbelievable, terrifying, scary from a business perspective and gratifying to help people,” Dinges, the CEO, said.
DInges Fire Co. usually goes through vendors for its supplies. That has changed. All face-to-face demonstrations and orders were canceled in March. With products like masks and gowns in high demand, Dinges has to pay up front for them, wait for them to arrive and then ship them as soon as possible.
Dinges has 40 team members that rely on paychecks. He spent three sleepless nights in March considering them and how his business will operate going forward. He’s risking one or two months of payroll by paying for products up front.
“We’re facetiming people in China to see if we can and should do it,” Dinges said. “Those supplies can be held up internationally when we’ve already paid. We’ve decided to only pay for verified U.S. things. We’ve sent representatives to count stuff. We sent a guy to Queens, New York to pick them up and drive all night.”
Countries are all vying for the same supplies. Denmark officials bought up some gowns that Dinges Fire Co. wanted at 2 a.m. on a Sunday. The Amboy company is competing with organizations of every scale.
There have been ghost products that don’t actually exist, Dinges said. He had a friend that lost some masks to a couple of guys with suitcases full of cash. There’s shortages in products, pallets and employees.
“It’s not price gouging,” Dinges said. “We have to overpay to get these supplies or you don’t get them at all. It’s survival. I want to keep employees and pay them. We get semi loads of stuff to Amboy and we go through them and load them in sales rep’s vehicles and deliver. It’s a crazy cycle we’re in that we hope breaks soon.”
Dinges said that prices change every day. His employees are working in the middle of the night due to time differences in the global industry. Dinges Fire Co. manufactures fire gloves overseas, so it does have experience abroad, but that doesn’t make it any less intimidating.
“It’s day-to-day, hand-to-hand combat,” Dinges said.
The Chicago Bears are currently looking into buying some masks from Dinges for their practice facility. Dinges has been amazed at who he’s ended up doing business with since March.
Dinges’ area of business being in high demand doesn’t necessarily mean his company will see a windfall of revenue. He won’t know where he stands for a couple of years. If there’s a flood of products in the near future, he’ll be hung out to dry, he said.
Dinges Fire Co. isn’t selling any of its traditional products, which will cause a shortfall, Dinges said. Margins are thin on the products he is selling. The uncertainty of the industry keeps him up at night.
“If businesses shut down for a couple months, cities won’t have as much in their budget,” Dinges said. “People will have less money to buy from us. If we lose 30 percent of our buyers, that’s a big deal. We do some business with the city of Detroit and they’re anticipating a $74 million shortfall and want to renegotiate.”
Dinges and much of the rest of his company are active firefighters and EMS professionals. On top of their hectic work life, they can be called away for an emergency at a moment’s notice. Their ability to react quickly has come in handy.
“We appreciate the support from all of our customers keeping us going,” Dinges said. “All of our workers have adapted and excelled with the new norm, no questions asked.”