Behind the plexiglass: Winnipeg business booms making pandemic partitions
John Wardrope feared pandemic would shut down his 37-year-old manufacturing business; instead, he got creative
If you have been to a doctor's office, the dentist, a grocery store or a restaurant in Winnipeg, the chances aren't bad that you've come across some of John Wardrope's custom plexiglass barriers.
They've become a familiar fixture in businesses since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since April, two machines, the size of small vehicles, run 12 hours a day inside the Jarvis Avenue warehouse of his business, Acryl Design, meticulously cutting the large sheets of clear plastic.
"I've rented the building next door just to store the plastic," he said. "I've calculated that the guy running the CNC [computer numerical control] machine [used to cut plexiglass parts] has lifted over a million pounds of sheet. He lifts them one at a time, throws them on."
In 37 years of manufacturing custom acrylic and cardboard products, August was the busiest month yet for Acryl Design — a business Wardrope thought might be going under in March.
When the pandemic hit, several large contracts his team was working on were cancelled, including a project designing and building modular escape rooms for a client in the United States.
"On [a] Monday [in March], I laid everyone off," he said. "On the Tuesday, I designed … [an acrylic barrier, and] sent it to an individual I had done business with 20 years ago that works for a grocery chain across Canada."
The next day, the grocery chain ordered 2,500 plastic partitions to be installed between front-line staff and customers, in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Wardrope's team had five days to make it happen.
"I brought my crew back and hired five more people, and we worked 12 hours a day and we got 2,500 guards done," he said.
"From that point on we put up an e-commerce website and we've designed about 30 different kinds of guards. Every type of location, every type of set of circumstances."
It's just another twist in a business that started in Wardrope's basement in the 1980s, when he began dabbling with making jewelry with acrylic — the clear plastic sometimes referred to as plexiglass (or by the trade name, Plexiglas) — and selling his creations at holiday craft shows.
"Thirty-five years and it built up to this, with no salespeople," he said. "It's all word of mouth."
'The busiest I've been'
Wardrope, who considers himself more of an artist and inventor than a businessman, has designed and built booths for trade shows for clients including SodaStream, along with custom signs and movie props. In recent years, he has been working in the realm of designing and building escape rooms.
At the start of the pandemic, he wasn't sure if the plexiglass barriers would take off, but he took a chance buying up all of the materials he could get his hands on from Winnipeg distributors.
Wardrope says after the grocery-chain contract, requests to build what he dubs "sneeze guards" continued to roll in.
"Somehow all the doctors and dentists got ahold of me and just phoned," he said. "The insurance companies, major corporations ... 17th Wing — we were doing all of the base."
In recent weeks, he's manufactured thousands of desk shields for schools in the Toronto area.
He is designing booth barriers for Tim Hortons restaurants, and some more sophisticated plexiglass barriers to replace the set that initially went into grocery stores.
He has also brought in some acrylic tinted in various colours, to make barriers for restaurants and personal care homes with a "less clinical look," he said.
The biggest challenge right now is getting it all done.
"It's just a very interesting feeling," Wardrope says, since he's not doing the kind of work he's used to, but now that he's making the plastic barriers, "it's the busiest I've been."
Manufacturing sector surviving pandemic
For the most part, Manitoba's manufacturing sector is surviving, if not thriving, in light of the pandemic and the myriad restrictions, says one industry representative.
"At the onset of the pandemic there was obviously great fear that everything was going to fall apart, that manufacturing [businesses], like others, would be shut down, but they weren't," said Ron Koslowsky, who heads the Manitoba division of the industry group Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.
There was some initial decline in sales, along with impacts on costs and supply chains due to border closures, Koslowsky said.
Heading into the fall, despite concerns about COVID-19's second wave, he said the outlook for manufacturing businesses in Manitoba is fairly positive.
"They are growing, they are rebounding — they are in some cases back to normal, in other cases expect to be so," he said.
"At the end of the day, people are still looking for the goods, whether it's food or appliances or other things that they need to keep living, so those things are still required to be made."
Koslowsky noted manufacturers in the travel service industry, such as companies making airplanes, are continuing to struggle.
On the flip side, the pandemic has created big opportunities for those in the manufacturing of food and personal protective equipment, he added.
Back at Wardrope's second-floor office, above the warehouse, you can hear the buzz of CNC machines slicing through acrylic.
At his desk, one of three monitors displays a 3D design of rollaway barriers that will fix to a long bench to separate customers at a sushi restaurant.
Although he's semi-retired, Wardrope has been coming in to work at 5 a.m. every morning and putting in full days and evenings for most of the last six months.
He admits he does not know what to expect, or when this might stop, but he is grateful to be coming to work to do what he loves.
"I don't consider it work," he said. "A lot of it I consider to be fun.… You're designing, you're building, you're making."