Corky Baker owns Stone County Ironworks, right there on the square in Mountain View. He also owns two other companies, Urban Forge, the customized furniture sister to Stone County Ironworks, and Urban FX, which sells lighted art objects and street lighting. You might say he’s in the business of blacksmithing.
He’s also ventured into the business of acquiring gloves and gowns for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “I was pressed into service,” Baker said, jokingly, to the Arkansas Times.
Necessity is the mother of invention — and it doesn’t hurt to have a little serendipity thrown in — which is how a man who makes a living in forged iron furniture got into medical supply procurement. As the COVID-19 outbreak moved into mid-America, Baker learned from his dentist son that there was a serious shortage of hospital masks. Three days later, Baker got a call from the manager of a factory in China that supplies electronics for his lighting business. The Chinese government had ordered it to convert to making masks.
Here was a need and, Baker saw, was a way to fill it, thanks to his business connections in China. He and his son Andrew, a co-owner in the Baker companies, decided to call around to providers in Arkansas to see what the local demand was.
“It blew up in our face,” Baker said. A nursing home chain reported being down to 11 masks. A private hospital, which relied on surgery revenue to stay open, said it was 50 days away from running out of cash. Ambulance companies and pharmacies were desperate for supplies. “There were people calling and begging at the hint that we might have a source of supplies. They were crying on the phone. It was very emotional,” Baker said.
So, going to their connections in China, Baker began “wrangling” supplies.
“It’s hard to find factories who will sell to us,” he said, because of various Chinese trade edicts. At one point, “We had one guy say, ‘I won’t sell you these masks because I don’t want to disappear from my family,’ ” he said.
So, Baker said, he used what he called “guerrilla” tactics to disguise the destination of the products he was buying, getting smaller factories from various parts of China to ship goods to the city of Guangzhou for staging rather than directly to the U.S. He and son Andrew, a co-owner in the family businesses, placed an order for masks large enough for distribution, gratis, in Stone County. He declined to provide the purchase price — though he acknowledged it was expensive — because “this is not about self-promotion.” Volunteers distributed the masks at Urban Forge to anyone in Stone County who wanted them.
Enter Curtis Broughton, UAMS assistant vice chancellor for supply chain. UAMS has taken on the job of providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals and clinics across Arkansas with a purse of $75 million from the state of Arkansas. That’s a lot of money, but it takes a lot of disposable PPE to keep medical personnel safe from infection from patients and other providers.
“There’s a very challenging political culture inside of China,” which is the global supplier of PPE, Broughton said.
He was reaching out to people on the ground in China, and getting “a number of solicitations” from those who said they had goods to sell: “ ‘I have 5 million masks.’ There’s a lot of scams and fraud. We knew we had to go in a different direction, to find somebody who was not in health care but willing to put in the hours.” Not sticking to regular health care supply chain methods “allowed us to procure large quantities of PPE for Arkansas that some other states who went the traditional route don’t have. We didn’t want to go to the well with everyone else, so instead we went to the creek.”
As it happened, Baker knew someone who knew UAMS Health CEO Dr. Steppe Mette, who put Baker in touch with Broughton.
“They [the Baker family] didn’t know much about medical supplies and gowns and gloves,” Broughton said. But Baker had contacts, Broughton had contacts and “we spent countless nights, all hours of the nights, talking to manufacturers we had relationships with.”
Baker used what he called “hunter-finders” in China looking for producers, sources to contact. “At 3 a.m., you’re falling asleep at the computer, but you push yourself to type 20 more emails,” Baker said. “We had so many hooks in the water.”
Baker and son vetted the producers, determining “Is this factory legit? Are they certified to produce, do they have a license? What is their production capacity and pricing? This acquisition process, we took a very unconventional approach,” Baker said.
UAMS, too, vetted products and producers — and it vetted the Bakers “extremely well,” Broughton said.
The result: On Easter Sunday, a chartered wide-body McDonnell Douglas MD-11 carrying a payload weighing 90,000 kilograms landed in Memphis, Tenn. Six FedEx tractor-trailer trucks delivered its cargo, boxes holding 9 million pairs of gloves and 700,000 isolation gowns, to Little Rock. The supplies were later taken to a staging area at the Arkansas Heart Hospital for pickup by hospitals.
Baker described the scramble to get supplies in what he called the “Wild West” atmosphere of commerce in post-COVID China as cutthroat: Suppliers would sell to whomever came up with the money first, despite promises made to buyers. “The ventilator that cost $5,000 three months ago is now $58,000. Masks that [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo bought for $7 a piece are normally 50 cents.”
Baker is not working to provide the N95 respirator masks that have been in such short supply. He said a broker he tagged the “infamous Mr. Wu” was willing to provide — “at great expense” — 200,000 KN95 masks, which medical literature said were equivalent to the more widely known N95 respirators. And just as they were about to put them on a plane out, the Food and Drug Administration issued an order prohibiting their use.
“Two weeks later they said they were just kidding,” is how Baker colorfully put it. “I don’t think the FDA was trying to cut off the supply. They were trying to protect American people. But the decision was in error.” The order never went through.
Asked if Arkansas had enough N95 respirators, Broughton said he did not believe any state in the U.S. had enough masks. UAMS has ordered 2 million KN95 masks, through channels unrelated to the Bakers.
Arkansas was the first state to charter a plane to get supplies out, Broughton said, and he credited Governor Hutchinson and UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson with the chutzpah to do it. (The New England Patriots’ charter flight that brought PPE to Massachusetts landed April 2, but that was privately paid for.) The price tag was $800,000. The shortage of PPE is one thing, Broughton said, but just as serious an issue is the difficulty in shipping products out of China. “Logistics is not getting the publicity that product is getting. There’s only so much transport aircraft that can come out of China. We have seen prices for aircraft go through the roof,” he said. Broughton’s learned that it may be faster to have products arrive by boat, and that’s how future shipments will arrive.
And products will keep arriving, Broughton said. “The great thing for Arkansas taxpayers is we now have [guaranteed] production time. We can start putting things in large containers and start shipping them to Arkansas. By negotiations that happened with us and the Baker family and partners overseas, we will be able to obtain product.”