‘Pretty Freaking Worried’: Changing times spark TentCraft’s new product line

TentCraft was on a roll … until it wasn’t.

Multiple events that used its custom products, such as the NCAA basketball tournament and the South by Southwest concert in Austin, Texas, were canceled early last year.

“There were a few weeks in March where I wasn’t sleeping … all the projects on the horizon evaporated,” said Matt Bulloch, president of the custom tent, flag and banner company in Traverse City. “We had financed … lots of equipment. I was pretty freaking worried.”

Bulloch knew that finding another outlet for his products was a necessity because of his staff. An early round of layoffs was followed by a second round when the company didn’t get a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.

“That was really tough,” he said.

As his business shrank, Bulloch says he noticed how hospitals were not only running out of room to treat victims, but also needed space for virus testing.

“Nothing is more important than health,” he said.

So TentCraft created a tent for Munson Medical Center. Munson’s all-white medical tent wasn’t the typical TentCraft product, which is normally brightly colored and festooned with logos, set up to hawk products or services.

Indeed, color and printing were very important for TentCraft’s profit margins, Bulloch said, but some sales were better than no sales.

TentCraft was reborn. While the use of colors and prints was out, the potential buyers were facilities interested in buying in bulk, and not in haggling over price.

“Big orders are really efficient,” said Bulloch. “There was not a lot of negotiating or discounting.”

To keep business going, TentCraft’s sales need to be around $15 million. Below $10 million, Bulloch says overhead such as the mortgage, utilities and insurance make the day-to-day “ugly.” Year-end sales for 2020 ended up at around $20 million.

Bulloch says that getting into the niche industry relatively early helped the company, as did some positive press in the beginning. Crain’s Detroit Business and Inc. magazine both ran stories on the company’s new endeavor. Its online presence grew organically, said Bulloch.

“Search medical tent or COVID tent, and we’re one of the top two results,” he said, adding that it also saved money on online pay-per-click advertising. Soon customers like the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and healthcare companies like Kaiser Permanente came calling.

“We were fast and nimble,” said Bulloch, “We benefited from the trend. Health clinics were doing things outside they’d never done before and (needed) protection from wind, sun or rain.”

Bulloch is humble about his company’s feat.

“It doesn’t mean we’re geniuses,” he said. “We responded to the market demand.”

TentCraft’s robust, U.S.-based supply chain also helped.

“The Chinese supply chain broke down – our supply chain is the behind-the-scenes hero,” he said. “If we ran out of something, we were only down one day.”

Now the company is all in on medical tents, information about which is splashed across its home page, with the kicker: “Shipped in 3-5 days.”

Bulloch is pleased the company was able to do its part for the healthcare field, resulting in its largest sales ever. Even so, he said the year has been stressful for the company, with first laying off staff, then trying to hire additional staff in an area where there are more jobs available than people to fill them.

Currently he said there are between 65 and 70 employees. The staff typically maxes out at 85 full-time in the summer. While workers are indoors, he said there is plenty of room for people to spread out and masks are required. The company also does daily health screenings, including taking staff temperatures.

He said the company also encourages people to wash their hands frequently. In the morning when an employee passes the health screening, they’re marked on their hand with a marker.

“It’s a visual you’ve been checked. It encourages us to wash our hands. I stole it from kindergarten,” he said.

Even with the increased sales, Bulloch believes TentCraft is not “out of the woods.”

“At some point the medical (business) will tail off,” he said. “I expect a lull between that and (the resumption of) large-scale events.”

Bulloch anticipates the event industry will remain the core of TentCraft’s business as things return to something approaching the previous normality, but he’s convinced it can’t be the only focus.

Like many other companies, the forced closure of business both mandated and provided an opportunity to take a close look at its business practices.

“We always knew we needed to diversify; we just hadn’t figured it out,” he said. “Different products is an investment in stability. The pandemic forced us to do it.”

He sees the company as having more capabilities, the challenge is determining the direction(s) it should go to capitalize on them.

One idea he’s contemplating: Fiberglass swimming pool covers.

“No one is printing on them,” he said. “People spend $50,000 on a pool and patio – what if we put a family picture on it? Or sports team covers?

Continuing to focus on diverse printing platforms is at the heart of TentCraft’s future, he said.

“That’s how we have the potential to stay on a growth trajectory,” said Bulloch.