The first day Ivan Mathena ’08 distributed masks to neighbors in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, the masks were gone in 15 minutes.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Ivan says. “We ran out of 1,000 masks. The second day, we did 1,500 masks.” He pauses. “We were out in 18 minutes.”
By the last day in a two-week production blitz of masks at Paper Cutters, the business Ivan’s father, Randy ’71, started 40 years ago, Ivan knew what to expect.
They brought 8,000 masks and spent hours distributing them to a caravan of worried neighbors, drive-through style. The line of cars overflowed onto the highways linking to Trailblazer Park, where the free masks were subject to a strict 10-per-car maximum.
“I don’t know what that math is,” Ivan says. The political science graduate can be forgiven for not having that worked out just yet. Father and son have been focused on adapting their business to the needs of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Mathenas of Travelers Rest and the Douglas brothers of Rome, Georgia, are two Furman families committed to serving their community during the pandemic.
Enter the cake boxes
For the Mathenas, the new reality wrought by COVID-19 began with 40,000 to-go boxes and the shutdown order in South Carolina.
“We were all caught off guard by it,” says Ivan. “No one really knew what was going on.”
For Ivan and Randy, whom Ivan describes as having built Paper Cutters from the ground up with a Furman degree, this was not a rote calculation. “We were also looking at ways we could help out the community.”
Enter the cake boxes, which had been languishing in their warehouse. The surge in restaurants’ takeout business struck Ivan as an opportunity to be of service. While distributing boxes to restaurants, a local mental health facility came forward with a request for masks, which were in short supply and subject to price gouging. In short order, the Mathenas threw themselves into producing masks.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, two-thirds of the Douglas brothers turned their parents’ dining table into an international personal protective equipment headquarters. Samuel ’15, a health sciences major, and James ’17, a vocal performance major, parlayed connections from Arthur Outdoor Inc., their sign business, into sources for PPE after their father, Jimmy Douglas, a physician at Northwest Georgia Medical Clinic, alerted them to the shortage.
The brothers soon roped in their younger brother William ’21, who is majoring in mathematics and economics, to refine a plan to speed up PPE deliveries. Working with accredited Chinese vendors over WeChat and fueled by ice cream dished up by their mother Laurie ’84, the brothers arranged for deliveries that could quickly clear customs in a brisk five to seven business days.
They began cold-calling hospitals offering modestly priced, quickly delivered PPE. A word-of-mouth referral network has meant that the brothers work grueling hours to keep up with both their Chinese vendors, which are 12 times zones ahead of them, and exploding demand: Since April 1st, they had delivered 30,500 masks and by beginning of May, 90,150 masks.
They have expanded to Florida, Ohio, Alabama and Louisiana.
‘A lot of lessons’
William says that this experience has shown him that “you never want to miss out on an opportunity to help someone.” The brothers agree that their time at Furman was crucial to their current success. “I think the pressure that Furman put me under for four years has helped to make this, to be creative and push forward,” he says.
Randy Mathena is proud of his son Ivan and his team.
“Our people have been doing everything they can to help, and it’s what we’re there to do.” He built his factory right down the road from Furman “so I could be close to the university. That’s how much I love it.”
He is heartened by the outpouring of action and problem-solving he has seen in his home community.
“They reach out. We reach out. And it just feels right,” says Randy. “We’re going to get back to normal again, and we will have all learned a lot of lessons from what’s taken place. I see more good come out of it than bad, and we’re going to be here when the dust settles to get back to work.”