World peril drives local company's business

July 19, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Bad news on a global scale doesn't make Craig Sobczak happy, but it does drive his business.

Sobczak is the owner of O'Mara Scientific, a Grandville company that supplies a wide array of personal protective equipment, basic laboratory equipment and even high-tech devices related to research and safety. He can provide you with a $1,600 Level A hazardous chemical suit or a sophisticated gas detection instrument of the type used on the orbiting space station.

But right now the big demand is for the little white respirator masks many people are wearing in areas where the H1N1 flu has been reported.

The flu, of course, is the big bad news driving O'Mara Scientist’s business right now.

"We have millions of respirators on order," said Sobczak. "There's not enough of them."

O'Mara has shipped supplies of respirators to Panama, Canada and at least 30 U.S. states. They go to hospitals; federal, state and local emergency planning agencies; and disease management organizations, among others.

O'Mara Scientific was founded in 1998 and is operated by Sobczak and his wife, Sue. Their two children, Amanda and Matthew, also work there. The company has a 16,000-square-foot distribution center in Grandville, plus a 6,000-square-foot distribution center in Connecticut. It employs from 18 to 23; the number fluctuates with the seasons since Sobczak usually hires a few college students during the summer.

He won't reveal the sales volume of his privately held company but did say it is in excess of $10 million "and we'll do well into that (range) this year."

Personal protective equipment is the company’s forte, but it has expanded beyond basic safety equipment for construction and manufacturing. Sobczak said his customers include the top three pharmaceutical companies in the U.S., plus research companies and organizations, government agencies across the country, and, recently, a lot of hospitals.

Ironically, one of the most prominent research organizations in the region, the Van Andel Institute, is not one of his customers — but he's trying to get his foot in the door there. He has a lot of competition.

"There are about a hundred companies just in West Michigan that customers can buy (safety, lab equipment and supplies) from," he said, although almost all of those are what he calls "catalogue houses."

He said O'Mara Scientific represents from 400 to 500 manufacturers of supplies and equipment, and his distribution centers hold "millions of dollars of inventory," ready to go when a rush order comes in from anywhere in the U.S. O'Mara has its own trucks.

He said his company offers "extremely competitive prices but our service is what puts us on the map — our ability to be very nimble, and (we) have the contacts and reputation to deliver high-volume products on a moment's notice."

Recently the N95 respirator mask has accounted for up to 10 percent of O'Mara Scientific’s order volume. N95 is a respirator design approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for use by the general public in public health medical emergencies. The major U.S. manufacturer is 3M.

Sobczak said there are two versions of N95 respirators: with or without an exhalation valve.

"The N95 without the exhalation valve is the respirator of choice right now. The manufacturers continue to ship product, but on an allocation basis," he said.

"We have containers of product on order, and in some cases, such as 3M, they informed us they will be able to ship large volumes at the end of July versus the middle of August," he added.

In China, the government has ordered that a certain percentage of respirators manufactured there must remain in China, according to Sobczak.

Additionally, he said, there is a shortage of the material the respirators are made of, "which has increased the price the manufacturers in China are charging for them." The cost of shipping the respirators to the U.S. by air "has doubled, as well," he added.

O'Mara Scientific experienced a similar event in 2003 during the SARS outbreak. Severe acute respiratory syndrome is a viral respiratory illness first reported in Asia in February of that year. Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. According to the World Health Organization, a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak, and 774 died. In the United States, only eight people had laboratory evidence of SARS infection, and all of them had traveled outside the U.S.

O'Mara Scientific also received urgent orders for personal protection equipment needed by rescuers and medical teams when the giant tsunami struck Southeast Asia in 2004, killing hundreds of thousands. Sobczak said O'Mara shipped orders the same day it received them.

Sobczak has been selling personal protection equipment for 23 years, but under his management, O'Mara Scientific hasn't been idly waiting for new outbreaks of disease to support its business.

"Over the last nine years, we also made a switch to the health care/life science" industries, he said, to which they supply basic laboratory equipment such as vials and beakers on up to sophisticated electronic testing and monitoring devices.

"We supply the world's largest pharmaceutical companies — actually, I think the top 3," he said, although he won't identify them by name.

Sobczak, a native of Grand Rapids, said the roots of his career were in his military service as a young man. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force, working in security at nuclear weapons sites. He had become familiar with use of the NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) warfare protective suits, "but I didn't know then that someday I'd be selling them." O'Mara Scientific has served as a vendor to the U.S. military, supplying the NBC suits used during the destruction of chemical/biological weapons in the South Pacific.

Much of O'Mara's day-to-day business is selling basic safety equipment to the state and local units of government, including many things for highway construction workers such as fluorescent vests, hardhats, steel-toed shoes, eye protection and hearing protection. HQ

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