Columbia Manufacturing Inc. began as the country’s first bicycle maker in 1877 and switched gears to school furniture in the 1950s, a line that became the company’s mainstay. In 1993, so it could focus solely on school furniture, Columbia authorized another company to make bicycles. “The company has a tradition of reinventing itself,” says Ali R. Salehi, president and CEO.
That tradition of reinvention was harnessed again during the COVID-19 pandemic. Columbia was faced with a decline in demand for school furniture as districts switched to remote learning and budgets tightened amid economic uncertainty.
“Volume took a major, major hit,” he explains. “School construction stopped or slowed.” And, school systems steered funding toward the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE).
In March and April, as the coronavirus spread worsened, Columbia Manufacturing looked to see what it could make to help prevent virus transmission and assist front-line workers, according to Salehi.
“Because of COVID, we did design several new PPE designs,” he says. “You have to use every resource at your disposal. You have to think outside the box.”
In March, Columbia renewed its focus on a mobile nursing cart, something which had been in the works. The company also began making polycarbonate shields in customizable sizes for libraries, schools, offices and other workplace environments. It also produced foldable privacy panels, face shields for retailers and over-the-bed pull trays.
A major metropolitan hospital was in dire need of privacy panels and reached out to Columbia for the product, Salehi recalls. In addition, the company made 32,000 disposable gowns for a Western Massachusetts healthcare system.
To this day, the orders for face shields continues, he says.
Protective shields were sold throughout New England and as far away as North Carolina and Texas, according to Salehi. He says Columbia will continue producing them as long as there is a demand. In this region, the buyers are as diverse as Suffield Academy and Westfield’s Short Stop Bar & Grill, which is using the shields between booths and tables.
The PPE segment is a “small part of what we make right now,” Salehi says, noting school furniture remains its core product. “You have to reinvent yourself. If you stay stagnant, you will be written off the face of the Earth,” he says.
This isn’t the first time Columbia has contributed during a time of crisis for the nation, according to Salehi.
During World War II, Columbia was the only manufacturer permitted to make bicycles for the government. They made the first foldable bicycle for paratroopers, who attached them to parachutes and then used them on the ground in the fight against the Nazis in Europe. Columbia also made shell, bomb and bazooka casings here for the war effort, he said.
Last year, as Columbia was pivoting its production to PPE and other products, Salehi said he was faced with the difficulty of finding skilled workers, particularly welders, over the summer months, Columbia’s busiest time. Potential workers had fears about going to work and contracting the virus. Others may have been collecting unemployment, exacerbating the lack of available workers, he said. Overtime was utilized to cope with the worker shortage, he said.
Columbia’s business is seasonal because of the nature of the work, and usually employs between 75 and 80 employees during its peak.
Trends have completely changed from a year ago as a result of the coronavirus.
Before, Salehi says, “collaborative” learning was emphasized with conjoined desks, but now districts want individual desks and units, to practice social distancing. For example, a unit that promotes social distancing that they didn’t sell more than 500 of over the past five years has become popular, with Columbia selling 2,000 in a short period recently, he said.
All of Columbia’s products are made here in Western Massachusetts “with pride and integrity.” Says Salehi, “Columbia is truly the only remaining all-American manufacturer of school furniture in this country. We manufacture all of our frames here.”
“We’ve always been a leader in this industry,” Salehi says. Years ago, they may have had only five or six competitors, whereas now there are more than 20 competitors around the world.
“The products we make are like Sherman tanks,” he says. “They don’t die.”
Columbia’s school furniture can be found in districts such as Springfield, East Longmeadow, Easthampton, Westfield, West Springfield, Agawam and Longmeadow. The company also has contracts with Boston, and New York City, the largest school system in the country.
In 1897, company founder Col. Albert Pope opened the Westfield plant, which today has more than 250,000 square feet of manufacturing, office and storage space at the Cycle Street facility. Company legend states that automaker Henry Ford visited Columbia to learn assembly line technology.
Salehi, who has been with Columbia for more than 25 years, was recently appointed to a five-year term on Westfield State University’s board of trustees by Gov. Charles Baker.
Until COVID hit, the business forecast for 2020 was “very good,” according to Salehi. As a private company, Columbia does not release sales numbers.
He is anticipating a “much better year” for 2021 due to “pent-up demand” for his products as schools return to in-person learning. The lasting power of a small manufacturing company in Massachusetts is always a concern, but Salehi says Columbia is a “survivor.”
The company, over the course of its almost 150-year history, has proven resilient, surviving the challenges of several recessions as well as the Great Depression, he notes.
“Our outlook is great. We have a very bright future,” Salehi says. “We are a hidden gem in Western Massachusetts.”