The extraordinary efforts of Michelle Bottino, Owner of Fully Promoted – Fox River Valley to protect her fellow man during the time of COVID.
Paul Stukel of Fox Valley Magazine recently had an opportunity to sit down (virtually, of course) with Michelle Bottino, owner of St. Charles-based Fully Promoted, a provider of branded apparel and promotional products, to discuss her heroic efforts to provide protection to hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans in the face of a devastating pandemic.
FVM: Maybe we could start with you telling us a little bit about Fully Promoted, the company that you own here in St. Charles.
Michelle Bottino: Sure. So my business used to be called EmbroidMe. I bought it about two years ago. Actually, two years and two months ago. We specialize in branded apparel and promotional products. Our entire business model is to help other businesses promote themselves by having branded shirts, or giveaways, swag bags, t-shirts. Basically everything that you can put a logo on, we make for all the local businesses and charities and schools and things all over the place here in town, and through all my personal connections, and through the chamber. So we are heavily invested in helping our local community grow with branding. That, in a nutshell, what we do here at Fully Promoted.
So it’s really a rewarding business, because we get to watch our customers grow, and we get to help them look good, and help them be creative in their branding, It’s really fun. And it’s a great place to be because we get to work with so many different diverse businesses, from just starting out, to being super established all throughout the community.
FVM: I was looking at the team you’ve got. It’s a family affair, isn’t it?
Michelle Bottino: It totally is. My son was a certified heating and air conditioning repair tech for about four years, and when I decided to leave my 20-something year dental career and start a business, I asked him if it was something that he wanted to do with me. And so he left his career to come on board with me here. And then my dad actually has a small embroidery business up where they live in Lake Summerset. So my dad has been a coach for us, and he does some graphics work for us. My mom is an accountant, so she does my bookkeeping work. My 11-year-old daughter helps out doing just little things around the store here. So yeah, my entire family is very engaged in everything that we do. I’m very close with my parents and my kids. So yes, it’s a very, very close family affair.
FVM: That makes it more fun, really. So I understand that the business, it sounds like you do at least a fair amount of the production onsite, or at the very least, you do it yourself, as opposed to outsourcing it. Is that accurate, or is that close to accurate?
Michelle Bottino: Yes. We have 11 heads of embroidery here in-house. Last July, we bought a brand new embroidery machine so that we can improve our quality. We made a big investment here in the business because Kyle does all of the embroidery here, and we wanted to make sure that we could offer the very best in quality. So we took a business loan, and got a brand new six-head embroidery machine here. So that brought us up to 11 heads of embroidery. We also got a vinyl print and cut machine. So we do all of our vinyl work here in-house.
On the promotional product side of it, all of that is done custom, but not here in-house. So we do as much as we can in-house, and then work with commercial partners to do the rest of the work.
FVM: So to the story, it’s a pretty remarkable one. Obviously, in all the headlines, in all of our daily lives here for the past X number of months, longer than any of us would want, we’ve been dealing with this COVID situation. And I think for some people, it’s been such a long haul here, and we’ve been through so much, people forget how it was at the beginning of this, early- to mid-March, when we didn’t know very much. What we know now is scary enough, but back then we were just in the dark, except that it was really, really bad, right? Are we going to have sufficient materials, medicine, first responders? All those things. There was real terror, I think, in a lot of hearts during that time.
That’s where you stepped in. So maybe you could tell us how your quite significant role in helping to deal with that period of uncertainty came about.
Michelle Bottino: Yes, so March 20th, the governor shut down all the businesses, including mine. That was a Friday, if I recall. And I said, “Okay,” I told my team, “We’re going to have to shut it down.” And then that Saturday, I was watching the news and listening to the governor saying that there’s a shortage of personal protective equipment, otherwise known as PPE.
And I thought, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. My suppliers are emailing me every day saying, ‘Do you need masks? Do you need hand sanitizer? Do you need this, and that, and the other thing?'” And I thought, “Well, if my suppliers have it, why is the governor saying that they don’t? Why are they saying that the hospitals are facing these shortages?” It just didn’t add up. So I reached out to the chamber president, Jim Di Ciaula and I said, “Hey, I need you to get me in touch with the senators, the state representative, the mayor, the governor. I don’t know who I need to talk to, but I need to talk to anyone in charge of this because it doesn’t make any sense to me. And if I can get this stuff, I have to be able to talk to these people to help them get it. My supply chain is not, generally speaking, medical, it’s promotional products. But if my suppliers have access, please let me get it for them.”
So Jim connected me to everyone who he could, and I emailed them all the same thing, saying, “Hey, I have this stuff. Let me help you.” And those emails went all Saturday, all Sunday, back and forth. Ultimately, I spoke to the mayor, I spoke to the state representatives, and emails went all the way to the governor’s office. On my personal credit card, because I had locked everything in the store, I had placed an order for face masks.
By that Wednesday, I had face masks in my store, 1,000 of them. And by that Friday, I had my first order from the governor’s office, purchase order COVID-19-0001 for 500,000 goggles that they needed. I put virtually no markup on it, because all I wanted to do was help. I never thought about profit at all through any of this. I was just worried about trying to get the people that were at risk of death the things that they needed so that they wouldn’t die. I spent every night on the phone with the suppliers, because obviously most of them were overseas. We got things from China, we got things from Vietnam, we talked to suppliers in Mexico. We got lots of products from suppliers in the US.
We had some of our suppliers convert their entire production facilities so that they could make things in the US locally. We worked with a local distillery. We got PPE coming from every possible place, trying to meet a need. We talked to police departments, fire departments, ambulatory companies, nursing homes. We called everyone that was in need of PPE products all across Northern Illinois. I mean, we literally just sat on the phone and called every single person, and said, “What do you need? Let us get it for you.” And we got it. I took out multiple persons loans because suppliers require that we pay for everything upfront. And these were very large orders: 15,000 face masks, or in the case of the state, 50,000 face masks, or half a million of this, or whatever it was. So I had to put out the money upfront for a lot of this stuff. It was a whole nightmare in trying to meet the need.
Every time we saw a police person, a fire department come in, we just gave them what we had at no cost. Lazarus House put out a request, and they said they needed face masks. So I left the store, and ran over there with a couple of hundred face masks and a bunch of hand sanitizer, just gave it to them because they needed it. My greatest fear was that I couldn’t get the stuff fast enough, and someone was going to die because I couldn’t get it to them fast enough. I felt this overwhelming responsibility because we had this access, and I didn’t have enough money, and they didn’t have enough resources, and I didn’t have enough time to get it to them fast enough.
So literally, night and day, trying to resource this stuff, and get it to all of the people that needed it. And as the supply went down, the prices went up, and it was absolute chaos. It was like the Wild West, trying to get things. We had suppliers selling fakes, and we had other partners that we saw that had placed orders, deposited money, and then the suppliers just disappeared. They took their money, and never produced anything. So I had to diligently resource, and supply, and verify that the products that we were sourcing were actually validated companies that actually were getting this stuff from truly FDA-approved manufacturers. And I demanded that they provide me with the FDA paperwork.
FVM: This started in mid-March or towards the end of March. So how long did you do this?
Michelle Bottino: Well, we haven’t stopped yet. We’re still getting face masks in, we’re still trying to … Well, let’s see. The governor just announced maybe three weeks ago that for the schools to reopen, they have to provide disposable face masks to the teachers. And so I reached out to the Kane County School District, as many people as I could find within the school district, and offered to sell them the disposable face masks at our cost or less than our cost, because I thought the worst possible thing that could happen with that mandate is that they would go out and try to source those at retail, which was at that time, a couple of weeks ago, it was like $1 or so a mask.
And so I was selling them at less than 50 cents a mask because I thought well a), I had masks here in the store that I had already bought, and b) I just don’t want to see people get taken advantage of by some of the other people that are out there doing the wrong thing. And I think that there’s a lot of people that are trying to capitalize on the pandemic and trying to make a profit, instead of thinking about the lives that are at risk. I just wanted to make sure that we could take care of the people, and make sure that they’re safe. So I have obviously worked really hard with reliable supply chains.
FVM: I assume they’ve taken you up on this?
Michelle Bottino: Yeah, we’ve gotten about 15,000, I think, out to the schools. I’m just putting together other packages of more things, and then I email them. Every time I find something new that I think that they can use, I send out another email, “Hey, I just found these big buckets of wipes, and here’s my cost.” Or, “I just found more hand sanitizer, and here’s my cost.” So I’m trying to get them the products that they need without them having to pay the retail prices for the same products. My goal here isn’t to mark up, or gouge, or do anything. I just want them to have what they need. The goal is to keep people alive. Sometimes I think I’m not a very good business person, maybe I’m not doing it right. But, I don’t know.
I have a compromised immune system, right? If I were to contract this virus, my chances of survival aren’t super great. So I think that may be the root of why I want to make sure that everybody else stays safe. I just don’t want anyone to not be able to get what they need because of a financial burden. I want to make sure that everyone just has what they need because it’s available and it’s there, and they don’t have to worry about not being able to get a product because of availability or financial hardship. So I’m just trying to get it.
FVM: I think what most people reading this, again going back to the beginning, are thinking that it’s astonishing you could even try this. When this first started, we all heard the stories that there was this massive shortage of PPE and everyone was quite afraid. Everyone was scrambling, and I’m talking governments, as you know, all over the country. And also at the federal level, people were just scrambling to find resources for this. And it’s just amazing to me that, and forgive me, I don’t mean this in a bad way, this little company in St. Charles had all these things coming in, and found access to obviously a very large quantity of these things so quickly. To what do you attribute that?
Michelle Bottino: A big part of it is because in our promotional products’ industry, a lot of promotional products are made overseas. And so those same companies are working with the manufacturers of the PPE. They’re in the same facilities, they’re the same people. They’re not necessarily the same supply chain that you would ordinarily go to for healthcare. Like 3M is a manufacturer of N95s, but 3M was only selling directly to hospitals. Whereas our supply chain, whether it be the makers of the 3-ply face masks in Vietnam, or the 3-ply face masks in China, they were selling to us as promotional products’ distributors.
The healthcare side of those supply chains was just overwhelmed, over stressed, over tasked. They just weren’t communicating, I think, on both sides of their supply chains. And the other part of it is because we’re part of a global network. The Fully Promoted brand, we’re in 80 countries, we’re a big brand. We set up meetings, task forces, so to speak, which I was a part of. So we had meetings every morning, we spoke to other owners, and said, “Okay, these are the products that we need. Let’s get together. Let’s figure out how we can source them.” So we had a network of people trying to figure out how to go about getting the right products. We started vetting manufacturers, we redlined some of the manufacturers, we had a group of people trying to figure out how to go about this in a responsible way. Whereas someone who doesn’t have communication with the manufacturers overseas wouldn’t know how to do that, wouldn’t know what manufacturers are there. Or wouldn’t have a group of like-minded, other business owners to say, “Okay, you’re going to handle this part. You’re going to handle this part. You’re going to handle this part. Let’s create a list. Let’s make sure we know who’s doing what.” So we went to work really quickly to figure out, “Okay, how can we make this work, so that we can be smart and use our resources and our talents to make sure that we can get the right products?”
FVM: I guess one of the reasons very well might be that the people who are normally in charge of this type of thing, the folks that are at FDA or CDC or whomever, they’re probably focused on the healthcare supply chain, as you had alluded to. And you’re probably right. It probably never occurred to them that, “You know what? The promotional products’ industry has a similar supply chain that may be able to help here.” It’s the tunnel vision concept. And I’m not saying that critically, necessarily, it’s just, who would have thought about it? I wouldn’t have thought about it, and actually I know a little bit about the promotional supply chain world.
Michelle Bottino: We hijacked an airplane of 3-ply face masks, and the greatest part of the story is the community support that went into it. I got tired of waiting for things to come off the back order, and I reached out to a supplier out of Chicago. I said, “Look, how many face masks, 3-ply face masks do you have landing in Chicago this week?” And they said, “I have 99,000 on this airplane.” And I said, “If I buy them all, could I take the whole shipment?” And he said, “Well, yeah. I’ll let you do that. I’ll let you take the whole plane load.” And so I said, “Okay, great. When can I pick them up?” because they were landing in Chicago. And I thought, “All right, I’m in St. Charles. We’ll pick them up, and that way we’ll fill all our orders.”
I scrambled, I took a loan, I got it all wired there. They got stuck of course in customs, coming through Chicago. They were supposed to arrive on Tuesday, and I reached out through Facebook, and I said, “I need a truck.” Obviously, I can’t fit these in the back of my car, it’s 99,000 face mask. So I reached out to one of my friends, and I said, “Who do you know that has a truck?” And so he connected me to Mitch Katkus at M.K. Movers. And I said to him, “Here’s the situation. I need a truck. I’ll provide a guy. Kyle, my son, will stop production for the day. I just need a physical vehicle. The boxes are this dimension.” And he said, “Well, that’ll fit in a 16-foot box truck.”
I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I can’t visualize in my head how many boxes this is. And so he, the owner, Mitch, actually canceled all his appointments for the day, and went with my son to go pick up these face masks, and bring them back to our store, of course at no charge to us, to help us out. And we got them all in here, and then we were able to fulfill all the customers’ orders. One of those customers happened to be the Illinois State Police. They had just placed an order for 50,000 of those, and we had already sold all 99,000. So we ended up having to, that same day, order another order for 100,000 more face masks from the same guy.
That was on a Thursday. We had to wait for another plane load to come in the following week. And then Elite Air Conditioning, who Kyle used to work for out of Carol Stream, loaned us one of their box trucks so Kyle could go back to Chicago, and pick up another 100,000 face masks. Again, they loaned us their truck at no charge because obviously if I have to add shipping to get this thing done, now I’m having to charge more. And I’m doing these masks, at again, very little markup or no markup, if they’re first responders. So Kyle went again back to Chicago to pick up more masks from the same supplier, another entire plane mode of 100,000 masks, and brought them back in here.
FVM: Well, Michelle you mean a lot to everybody. Again, what you’ve done is extraordinary. What you are doing is extraordinary. I think I speak on behalf of everybody to say thank you. As I said, who knows how many lives you saved because of this? It’s a really remarkable story, and it speaks so well of you, so well of Fully Promoted. Thank you. That’s about all I can say. It’s really, really remarkable.
Michelle Bottino: You’re welcome.