COLEBROOK - The federal government's goal to avoid relying on foreign suppliers for protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic has been good news for medical-glove maker American Performance Polymers, which is doubling the size of its plant and its workforce.
Last July, the Department of Defense, on behalf of the Air Force, awarded APP parent company Renco Corp. of Manchester, Mass., a $22.4 million contract to expand its capacity to manufacture gloves made from nitrile beutadine rubber (NBR).
APP can use the money for raw materials, storage tanks, dipping lines, water treatment, roof repair and other needs. The contract also specifies adding "a remote facility to be determined at a later date in the south central part of the U.S. in order to bring an industrial base and to replenish the strategic national stockpile of Nitrile produced rubber gloves back to the U.S."
APP is adding 95,000 square feet of space to its facility on Gould Street and plans to increase its workforce to 300, some of whose members may be bused in daily from Berlin.
The expansion will be complete sometime in late 2022, said Rich Renehan, president and CEO of Renco during an interview last week.
But the award-specific requirement that APP be able to make more than 500,000 gloves per year will be met by the end of 2021, said Rick Tillotson, who through APP revived the manufacturing of gloves his late father, Neil, pioneered.
APP is the successor of Tillotson Performance Polymers, which itself is the successor of the Tillotson Rubber Co. Under the contact, APP is not required to make any gloves for the government per se but must be able to produce a certain number on demand should the need arise.
Under the Defense Production Act, the president could order APP to make gloves, Renehan and Tillotson said, noting however that the contract is not just about gloves but America's ability to make them domestically when it matters, like during a pandemic or times of conflict.
At present, Malaysia leads the world in producing nitrile gloves, said Renehan, and is closely followed by China, whereas the U.S. made less than 1%.
It hasn’t always been like this, said Tillotson, whose father invented the latex rubber balloon, latex examination gloves, and after the collapse of that industry in 1989, the nitrile glove.
The elder Tillotson was also the longtime owner of The Balsams Resort in Dixville, where every four years, he was "Citizen One" in the township’s midnight voting in New Hampshire’s first-in-the nation presidential primary. The Tillotson Rubber Co. operated on the Balsams property until Neil Tillotson’s death in 2001.
In 2012, Rick Tillotson was able to relocate machinery from there to APP’s present address, where he resumed making gloves and other products under the Tillotson Performance Polymers name. The company was renamed American Performance Polymers in 2018, and since then has operated as a part of Renco.
Renco was founded in 1962 by the late William J. Renehan as the Renco Drybox Glove Co. Its Titeline connector system and gloves were used by NASA later that decade to handle moon rocks, said Rich Renehan, and are in use today aboard the International Space Station.
In addition to manufacturing its own products for the electronics manufacturing, chemical processing, medical, pharmaceutical and biotech industries, Renco for many years has also marketed gloves made by the Tillotson Rubber Co., Renehan said. Its customers include Pfizer, Merck, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Cardinal Health, the departments of Energy and Defense, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.
"I’m not a rocket scientist or an expert glove maker, but we (APP) have one here" in the person of Rick Tillotson," Renehan said.
At APP, Tillotson is overseeing its expansion as well as the installation of its multiple high-speed dipping lines. Some of that equipment comes from the Tillotson Rubber Co. plant at The Balsams, he said, while some has been built with that equipment as a guide.
Overall, APP’s dipping lines are based on a design in use in Asia.
That design is "cost efficient and makes good gloves," Renehan said, but it has been tweaked for even greater efficiency and flexibility at APP.
Bringing it back home
Renehan thanked U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Chuck Henderson, her special assistant for projects and policy, for moving the APP expansion along after it had hit a snag and the money for the expansion wasn’t immediately forthcoming.
He added that the town of Colebrook and Beno Lamontagne, the North Country industrial agent with the state Division of Economic Development, were also important supporters of the APP expansion, which Renehan hopes will have a transformational effect on the community.
"We want this to be a cornerstone of the community for many years," Renehan said.
Wages at the plant start at $12 an hour. The company is also encouraging workforce housing, he said, and is looking at instituting a bus shuttle from Berlin, something that the Tillotson Rubber Co. had done years ago.
At its peak, Tillotson Rubber employed 600 people. From the 1960s until well into the 1980s, it was one of several successful manufacturers in the U.S. of latex medical gloves, said Rick Tillotson, but then came the crash of that industry in 1989.
Several years earlier, the industry was booming with demand brought on by the AIDS/HIV epidemic, Tillotson said, but a consequence of the demand was the construction of hundreds of new manufacturing plants worldwide and a shift of the industry to Asia.
As of today, the handful of American glove makers left are making a tiny percentage of all medical gloves globally, said Tillotson, but with the APP expansion, that is changing.
Shaheen said she was proud to see APP help lead the charge to increase the production of PPE in the United States.
APP’s contract with the DOD is "a significant investment in the North Country’s workforce and an enormous undertaking to deliver urgently needed personal protective equipment to those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis," she said in a May 5 email.
She thanked the DOD for responding swiftly to her office’s request that the contract money get to APP; Renehan said that the $22.4 million represented a little more than half of what he estimated is the $40 million cost of the APP expansion.
Renehan said the U.S. medical-glove industry should have been protected earlier on in the COVID-19 pandemic, and that going forward, the federal government should stockpile its and other makers’ gloves.
He took comfort in the fact that the Biden administration is at least "thinking about" industrial planning and that he and Tillotson are doing something historic in Colebrook.
"It’s a huge honor for Rick and I to reinvigorate an industry that disappeared," he said.