Bill Shelton’s workplace looks a little different from just a few months ago.
Inside the facility he leads for Flint Hills Resources in Longview, Texas, employees now work six feet apart and where that’s not possible, don a variety of masks, neck gaiters, and other protective gear. Some things may have changed amid the pandemic, but what remains constant is the contents of the bag on his desk: processed pellets of polypropylene, one of the few types of plastic that can withstand repeated sterilization, making it vital to medical uses. Employees in Longview are responding daily to the emerging needs of roughly 50 customers using polypropylene to make products directly related to fighting COVID-19, including critical test kits for labs and hospitals around the world.
“It’s a pride thing,” Shelton says of the responsibility felt by employees at Flint Hills Resources, the refining, chemicals and biofuels company of Koch Industries, in making the material that makes up COVID-19 test kits, among other critical tools from otoscope earpieces to IV bags. For employees, the work “is near and dear to our hearts in the sense that anything we can do to help during this time is critical,” added Michael MacLeod, director of commercial polypropylene sales.
Despite the challenges to daily life caused by the pandemic, the team in Longview shattered monthly production records in March and April. Compared with larger producers of polypropylene, Longview’s advantage lies in its ability to quickly and efficiently fulfill custom orders of high-grade product.
“It’s our agility. There’s no doubt about it,” said MacLeod.
Flint Hills Resources' Mike MacLeod talks polypropylene and COVID-19
“When a major event like this happens and there’s a shortage, industries with excess demand are all looking for product. They’re calling us left and right, saying ‘Do you have this grade? Do you have this ability?’ And then we have our normal business too,” said Jeff Koerner, an account manager in Wichita, Kansas.
This agility to respond quickly and nimbly to changing consumer needs is largely possible thanks to years of preparation and technological transformation. “The reason we were able to have record production months isn’t necessarily because of an increased demand, but it’s because the facility has invested in improved reliability and preventative maintenance” as a part of Koch Industries, which has historically reinvested 90% of its earnings back into its companies, Koerner added.
Not only has the Longview team prioritized projects related to COVID-19, changing complex production schedules in tight windows, they’ve done it all the while adjusting operations for employee safety during the pandemic.
“Our team is also finding really innovative solutions to do work to help minimize the risk,” Shelton added, like operators who used video conferencing software to conduct walkthroughs, work on project permits and hammer out safety details, among other tasks that would normally require face-to-face interactions.
“Right now, we’re developing our back-to-workplace plans for bringing some of our remote workers back to the site,” Shelton said. “Because we've been able to minimize the threat, we've experienced no impacts due to COVID-19 from a health standpoint. So far, we're all maintaining good health.”
The challenging circumstances of COVID-19 made their achievements even more remarkable.
“We didn't miss an order, we didn't miss a shipment, and it was really a substantial accomplishment to show that we already had our IT in place to work from the cloud and work from home, and it was really a remarkable feat that we hit the ground running and the customers have told us that, so that's a positive,” said MacLeod.
While working from home under these unusual circumstances, he hears his 4-month-old grandson from the other room. MacLeod and his wife are caring for him as their daughter works as an X-ray technician at a local hospital where she is in regular contact with COVID-19 patients. Getting to hear his grandson laugh is a bonus – and a reminder.
“There’s good out there,” MacLeod said. “Hopefully, we’re somewhat a part of that by helping people get the products they need.”