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From high-end jewelry to high-demand medical gear: O.C. Tanner revamps to help fight COVID-19

Josh McEwan, O.C. Tanner’s director of product development, demonstrates a face shield the company has started manufacturing for health care workers on the front line of the fight against COVID-19.
O.C. Tanner

SALT LAKE CITY — Making the leap from manufacturing one-of-a-kind jewelry items and employee appreciation products to cranking out critically needed medical equipment may seem like a radical shift, but O.C. Tanner CEO Dave Petersen said the segue was merely an extension of the company’s underlying mission.

“We have ... hundreds of clients in the health care industry,” Petersen said. “Those professionals are serving others, blessing others and saving others. It feels very natural, almost second nature really, for our teams and our people to think about what they’re doing, what their challenges are and seeing what we can do to help.”

To that end, the nearly 100-year-old Utah enterprise has repurposed space at its Salt Lake City headquarters and gone to work on making some of the most-needed items in the fight against COVID-19. A facility that once created the Olympic medals for Salt Lake’s 2002 Winter Games has now added the means to manufacture face shields, ventilator parts and an adapter for powered air purifying respirators, one of the critical personal protection items now in dire need by health care providers in Utah and around the world.

Tanner’s director of product development, Josh McEwan, said the company’s decision to jump into the work to help provide for those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic has given everyone involved a sense of making a difference.

“This is a humbling project to be part of,” McEwan said in a statement. “The hospital staff are amazing people who are currently facing uniquely hazardous conditions while they serve our communities.

“This is a difficult time for everyone across the world, but it’s also a unique opportunity for us to help people thrive in a different way, and to be part of something so vitally important to saving lives.”

Petersen said the company initially reached out to a manufacturer’s group with an offer to bring its expertise to bear on pandemic-related issues, but it was communications with local health care providers University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare that got the ball rolling on the new products, which Tanner is giving away to providers in need.

O.C. Tanner’s executive vice president of supply chain and production, Gary Peterson, said the first shipment of adaptors for personal air purifiers has already been delivered to University of Utah Health and the company is set to start producing hundreds of the face shields and other products each day.

The ability to make the swift shift to an entirely new manufacturing task, Peterson said, was accommodated by the company’s stock of 3D printing equipment as well as employees and engineers who are expert problem solvers.

“Our people are naturally very agile, very flexible and able to move quickly to new skills,” Peterson said. “We don’t buy machines, we make our own machinery and our engineers are very used to identifying a problem to solve and getting to the right outcome.”

He also noted that the effort has given the entire O.C. Tanner staff a direct connection to the fight against COVID-19.

“Being able to add this to the work we’re doing right now has given everyone a huge shot in the arm,” Peterson said. “We work hard to make sure that the people working at O.C. Tanner know that their work is purposeful and meaningful. While we’ve always been committed to that bigger purpose, this just takes it a big step up.”

The company, which currently employs about 1,600, was founded in 1927 by Obert Clark Tanner, who studied philosophy in college but saw a business opportunity in selling class rings and pins to high school and college students. That effort evolved to become the world’s leading manufacturer of employee recognition awards and, in recent years, O.C. Tanner has built an entirely new and fast-growing software-based facet to the business.