NORTHFIELD, Ill.—Medline Industries attracted little public attention for decades as it grew to become the largest privately owned supplier of medical products.
It took COVID-19 just a couple of months to drag the $14 billion-revenue company into the global spotlight as a critical source of desperately needed personal protective equipment for health care workers battling the pandemic. But the attention hasn't always been flattering, and surging demand for basics like surgical gloves and face masks hasn't been the windfall it might appear to be.
"If anything, it has slowed down our growth," CEO Charlie Mills said, explaining that the outbreak hurt demand in Medline's larger product lines while boosting sales in a relatively small corner of its business.
Pressure to ramp up production of low-margin products that account for less than 5 percent of sales isn't the only challenge for Northfield-based Medline. COVID-19 also has broader implications for the business model that has generated consistent double-digit annual growth rates for the company founded by Mills' great-grandfather 110 years ago.
Medline's growth strategy focuses on sales of highly profitable surgical products, which dropped sharply as hospitals—besieged by coronavirus patients—canceled elective procedures. Representing about 40 percent of sales, surgical products "are probably down roughly half," Mills said.
After the pandemic eases, Medline could face calls to reduce its reliance on Chinese producers for personal protective equipment, and to keep even larger inventories on hand to ensure hospitals don't run out of essential equipment during the next crisis. Both moves could boost operating costs.
Meanwhile, Medline is under scrutiny from law makers for its part in Project Airbridge, in which the federal government aims to expedite the shipment of critical supplies from factories overseas. While the government covers the cost to fly supplies into the U.S., Medline and other players in turn have to sell 50 percent of PPE to customers in virus hot spots, like Illinois and New York.
The Airbridge program has been criticized for a lack of transparency over matters such as which customers are getting what and how much they're paying. It also has come under fire for pitting states against each other, as well as against private organizations and other countries.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal have called on Project Airbridge companies to explain how supplies are priced and distributed amid reports of equipment "being seized by the government, price gouging and political favoritism."
Mills said "a lot of customers are asking for way, way more product than there's possible supply, and so FEMA has tried to help direct that some. We're getting a lot more scrutiny because of that than we normally have had."
Asked whether Project Airbridge has affected Medline's relationships with existing customers that aren't getting as much PPE as they want, Mills said, "We're working hard to supply our accounts. We're just trying to do our part. If FEMA asks us to do something, we'll do our best to do it."
As a result of bottlenecks earlier this year as COVID-19 spread across Wuhan, medical products companies that rely heavily on low-cost Chinese manufacturers likely will need to diversify supply chains into other areas where labor might be more expensive.
"We'll see what the government mandates," Mills said.