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That old saying about crisis and opportunity is a way of life for entrepreneur Don Vaccaro of South Windsor.
He saw the COVID-19 pandemic crush one of his businesses — then add new life and purpose to a second one.
“It has actually been very exciting for every milestone and hurdle,” Vaccaro said. “Being at this time in this business — to solve a problem that makes folks happy — is a great thing.”
Vaccaro’s new business is supplying low-cost N95 face masks to doctors, dentists and businesspeople, in part utilizing the staff and resources of TicketNetwork, his sidelined ticket-brokering company.
TicketNetwork, located 75 Gerber Road East in South Windsor, employed 470 people at its height, Vaccaro said. The company was doing so well buying and selling tickets to live shows that it joined other major state employers in 2019 to announce it would increase its minimum hourly wage to $15. (The company also drew some negative attention from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who agreed in July 2019 to a $1.55 million settlement in a lawsuit accusing a TicketNetwork affiliate of duping concert-goers.)
Then the COVID-19 pandemic crashed and burned the live-entertainment industry. TicketNetwork laid off a total of 147 people in June and another 56 in September. Vaccaro doesn’t expect the live entertainment business to recover for a year or more and he said some venues may never reopen.
Now a little more than 100 employees are left at TicketNetwork’s South Windsor headquarters, some of them working entirely on Vaccaro’s other enterprise, Connecticut Biotech. TicketNetwork did receive a $4.4 million potentially forgivable loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, according to federal data.
Vaccaro formed Connecticut Biotech in May and soon set out to license face-mask-frame technology from UConn’s Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering. Star UConn scientist Dr. Cato T. Laurencin and his team at the institute had designed a method to build custom-fit frames to optimize the masks’ usefulness while protecting wearers from COVID-19.
The SecureFit mask frames cost $40 apiece and are selling well, Vaccaro said.
“The technology’s great; it’s definitely going to be in my opinion standardized in the future where a lot of folks who are wearing surgical masks will wear the mask frames around them,” Vaccaro said. The frames allow for better voice quality and also prevent the mask-wearer’s glasses from fogging up, a big advantage in settings like surgery suites.
But Vaccaro’s focus has shifted in recent months to providing the masks themselves, specifically the approved N95 masks needed by dentists, doctors and certain trade workers.
Vaccaro’s own dentist told him during an appointment this spring that he was having trouble locating masks at any price, much less at a cost approaching pre-pandemic levels.
Using Connecticut Biotech’s contacts at pharmaceutical manufacturers in India, the company was able to secure a supply of N95 masks that it sells at $1.25 apiece. By contrast, some suppliers were charging Connecticut buyers as much as $13 for a single N95 mask in late March and the first weeks of April, according to a recent report by the Associated Press. Prices remain as high as $6.50 per mask at some major suppliers.
“They’re making a huge markup and a huge margin on the masks, which is ethically questionable,” Vaccaro said. He said he makes just enough on the masks to keep his workers on the job.
Meanwhile, TicketNetwork software engineers are packing masks into boxes and other workers are tracking down supply chains and other tasks. More than 1 million masks have gone out from a climate-controlled South Windsor warehouse.
“It’s not profitable, but it somewhat at a very low level offsets expenses of having employees sit idle,” Vaccaro said.
“We have a software company where people are sitting around just waiting for the entertainment business to come back,” he added. “People are happy we’re doing it. People are happy to be working here knowing that we are going through these lengths to keep people employed.”
For Vaccaro himself, the new endeavor keeps him busy and stimulates him with constant challenges, including getting his product to customers. Most online retailers have blocked ads from mask suppliers due to scams and profiteering in the early days of the pandemic, so he relies on local customers and word of mouth.
“The biggest thing is when I hear the thanks from the doctors and the dentists,” he said. “We plan on staying in [the mask business] as long as there’s a need.”
PPE pivots abound
TicketNetwork is one of at least 15 businesses statewide that pivoted to making or distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic, said
Matthew J. Pugliese, associate state director at the Connecticut Small Business Development Center.
“Pivoting is the word of 2020,” Pugliese said.
At the start of the pandemic, Connecticut manufacturers, retailers and even brewers started making or dealing in items like masks, face shields and hand sanitizer to meet skyrocketing demand. Now the center’s business advisors are starting to get calls about recent PPE businesses planning to pivot back to their original products or services.
“There was a major hole in the supply chain in the state, now that immediate need has gone away,” Pugliese said of PPE. “They are shifting to doing what they were doing.”
Beyond PPE, many businesses are looking for pivots to a different type of customer relationship in response to the pandemic, like restaurants going from dine in to takeout or retail shops starting curbside pickup.
Calls for advice and support have almost doubled at the Connecticut Small Business Development Center over the past year, Pugliese added.
“Everything comes back to COVID — it’s touching your essential business, it’s touching your workforce, it’s touching your customers. I think everybody is going to be looking at how do we adjust and be resilient and adapt.”
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