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During one week at the end of March, a small Winnipeg plastics design shop called Acryl Design was in the middle of a $50,000 custom-design project for a Winnipeg client.

When the orders to stay at home came, that company abruptly cancelled the project, leaving Acryl’s owner John Wardrope in the hole for the $30,000 worth of materials that he’d already paid for.

With money already tight, he had no choice but to lay off his four-person staff and shut down.

But by the end of the week, he was back in business making acrylic see-through shields for the new world of COVID-19 social distancing, where retailers and public facilities require safety measures to protect their staff and the public from coughs and sneezes and people who spray it when they say it.

John Wardrope, owner of Acryl Design, with freshly made cough guards in his shop in Winnipeg.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

John Wardrope, owner of Acryl Design, with freshly made cough guards in his shop in Winnipeg.

Wardrope laughs when he recalls how his business went from bust to boom.

"It was in crisis and then it went to boom," he said. "At the beginning of the week we were in the middle of huge contract for a very reputable company and they cancelled… By the end of the week I designed an acrylic guard and through happenstance we got an order for 3,100 the next day."

Just by chance he’d sent a rudimentary shield design to an old customer who then happened to overhear his colleagues talking about their need for shields and all of a sudden Acryl was back in business as a protective shield manufacturer.

Luckily, Wardrope is an old hand at pivoting.

In his 37 year career — he started in 1983 with $5 at the Christmas Craft Show — he has made all sort of acrylic glass or Plexiglas products for all sorts of clients.

Jeanne Diniz glues cough guard parts together at Acryl Design.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jeanne Diniz glues cough guard parts together at Acryl Design.

Before the coronavirus epidemic, he was on the verge of pivoting into exclusively making escape-room installations. He even designed a modular escape-room concept and had lined up a broker to market it and was ready to commercially launch the $250,000 product.

"I live in a sawtooth world," he said. "I am way up, then I’m way down. I’m way up, then way down. But this one here is the biggest wave in my life."

In the 1990s, before public health regulations came into effect around cigarette smoking, he was making all sorts of promotional products for the cigarette brands.

He lost $750,000 worth of annual business in one day.

But with plenty of resourcefulness, a few CNC (computer numerical control) machines and a hard-working team, Wardrope has done as much business over the past six weeks as he did the previous six months.

Richard Wagner cuts and cleans parts for the cough guards.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Richard Wagner cuts and cleans parts for the cough guards.

"I’m looking at buying container loads of acrylic glass from China because the distributors are dry," he said. "The country has run out of acrylic glass."

He quickly launched a separate website for his COVID barriers, www.sneezeguardcovid19.com, featuring 21 different designs of acrylic glass shields that will prevent the flow of air from one place to another, ranging from an eight-inch by 12-inch handheld sneeze guard for $19.95 to a 60-inch by 48-inch roll-away patient barrier for $850.

"We were getting a new order every 12 minutes," he said. "Now it’s down to every 15 or 20 minutes."

Customers can order some models and pick them up the next day.

"We’ve got it down to an art form," he said.

Before the coronavirus epidemic, Wardrope was on the verge of pivoting into exclusively making escape-room installations.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Before the coronavirus epidemic, Wardrope was on the verge of pivoting into exclusively making escape-room installations.

Wardrope is in the plant at 5 a.m. and the place runs seven days per week, and he only needs to hire people on occasion to complete large jobs. A couple of weeks ago he hired 10 people for five days because they needed to get 3,000 parts done and shipped across the country in five days.

Over the years, Acryl has done elaborate trade show booths for companies like Peak of the Market — including a 20-foot by 50-foot synthetic skating rink complete with fake overhead scoreboard — and he has built projects for SodaStream Canada, Western Canada Lotteries, Mondetta and others.

For the past two years, he’s operated out of a 6,000-square-foot production facility after moving from a 15,000-square-foot site with 20 employees.

He’s been able to use space in an adjoining building that’s empty so he can deploy social distancing when he’s had to hire extra people.

"I’m 67 years old," he said. "I was planning on toning it down."

He said he never had any intention to get this busy again. "I’m not too stressed, but I am exhausted," he said.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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