Former Brookhaven student and partner take on mask manufacturing

Dara Jones, Contributing Writer

After working the night shift, former Brookhavean John Bielamowicz used to catch a short nap in his 1968 Volkswagen Beetle in the campus parking lot before his 8 a.m. class. In January, he and his family sleep in an Airstream camper for a week to catch up on increased production demands outside the Fort Worth-based United States Mask, a company he jointly owns with business partner David Baillargeon. 

The two started the company in March 2020 and opened their online store in January 2021. Since launching the business, orders have poured in for their all-American made N95 masks. In January, their entire inventory sold out in just three days. They worked diligently to make sure their customers got their masks in a timely fashion. 

“We figured out how to pack and ship 10,000 orders in the course of a week,” Bielamowicz said. “We had never done that. We were hand loading UPS trucks. One day it took two brown trucks, two box trucks and one 30-foot – just smaller than an 18 wheeler – truck that we hand loaded one-by-one.”

 

BECOMING AWARE OF THE NEED

In February 2020, as the pandemic was starting to ramp up, Bielamowicz and Baillargeon who both still work in real estate, began to look around for N95 masks for friends in the medical field and clients who would need them in order to continue to operate. They had a difficult time finding them. Bielamowicz said they ran into a myriad of problems buying masks.  At the time, China was the major supplier of personal protective equipment (PPE). Shipments arriving from China were turned away or were held  by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. There was also price gouging because of the many middlemen who had jumped into the mix.

“We were just absolutely at their whim of what pricing would be and it was so inflated,” Bielamowicz said. “And I mean, what are you going to do? You pay it. You don’t have any other options.” 

The two surmised that if China can make enough PPE to supply their citizens, the same could be done in the U.S. So they set out to manufacture American made masks. They would soon find this was easier said than done. 

They applied for N95 certification which turned out to be a long, rigorous process. Finding suppliers also proved challenging. Bielamowicz said it was very important to the pair that the masks be made in the U.S. with materials sourced in the U.S., yet most suppliers would not give them the time of day because of their small size or concern they would be brokering the materials out of the country. Finally, a couple of suppliers gave them a chance. Bielamowicz said: “We convinced them that we’re committed to this, here. And they gave us a shot.”

 

QUALITY FIRST

From the outset, they put their energies into making the best possible N95 mask. Bielamowicz said that while many manufacturers use the same material on the outside of the mask as the inside, they went the extra step of putting a layer of comfortable material inside of it. 

Kathy Cain, a resident of Murphy, Texas, compared the company’s masks to others she bought online and said she was impressed. 

“I noticed that as I’m breathing it closes around the jawline so that I can tell that when I breathe in it pulls it forward so I know that I’ve got a good, solid connection here without bulk and pushing into my face,” she said. “And it’s very comfortable. So I like it. I like it a lot.”

Cain, a San Antonio native, was also excited to know the masks were made in the U.S. “I live close to Fort Worth. It’s a Texas company. I love it,” she said.

Kaothar Olateju, president of Brookhaven Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA), said finding one for her personal use has been more difficult. She said she was glad to know a local company is making medical grade N95 masks particularly because of the fit the design offers. “I think that’s going to be the one that works best for me because it fits perfectly onto the face and the mouth and the nose,” she said. “So, I don’t have to be worried about adjusting the face masks to fit well to my nose or to fit well to my mouth.” 

 

THE HURDLES

Despite consumer interest, marketing has brought its challenges to United States Mask. In a field which Bielamowicz describes as “the wild, wild west,” the company struggled to differentiate itself from the early onslaught of brokers who were hoarding and selling counterfeit as well as legitimate masks. 

When trying to list their products on retail sites, they found the term “N95” had been repeatedly squashed by Google Adwords, Ebay, Amazon and other internet retailers who wanted to clamp down on fraud. Bielamowicz said that in 2020 only seven American companies besides United States Mask certified an N95 respirator, among them General Motors (GM) and Ford.

“It’s so unlikely that a pair of dads that had no real experience in manufacturing PPE did the same thing that Ford and GM did,” he said.

Bielamowicz said their ultimate goal is to supply an N95 mask to any American who wanted one. He and partner Baillargeon initially planned to stick to larger customers while they were still small. The goal was to eventually build the fulfillment department infrastructure to directly mail out the merchandise themselves.

This also proved easier said than done. When they sought to supply masks to Tarrant County they were turned down.

“They just disqualified us because we weren’t a specific model,” Bielamowicz said. “In Tarrant County’s defense, the reason why they probably only wanted certain models is that they didn’t want to have to deal with a bunch of counterfeits.”  

 

ROUNDING THE BEND

In January 2021, The Dallas Morning News reported on the company’s dilemma dealing with Tarrant County and internet retailers. Within three days, their entire inventory was sold out via their newly opened online store. They began taking pre-orders to try to keep up with the demand.

 “We finally had to stop and make sure it wasn’t too high of a mountain to climb in so we could fulfill all of the orders,” Bielamowicz said. “We still want to get listed on Amazon, because this firm is so much quicker. I mean, it helps us get them in the hands of people so much faster, because Amazon’s already built that infrastructure. We’re having to build that from scratch.” 

And build it, they apparently have. Despite a power outage the week of the great snowstorm, which, according to their website temporarily halted production, their N95 masks are currently back in stock.