Suburban medical supply maker adapts to meet soaring demand amid challenges of a pandemic

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NORTHFIELD, Ill.— As the largest privately-held manufacturer and distributor of medical supplies,  Medline was forced to respond as a pandemic took hold around the globe  — and fast. 

While the company does its best to be ready for anything, even 4th generation family executives at the north suburban company didn’t see COVID-19 coming. 

Demand first spiked from U.S. hospitals, then from Asia and finally spreading around the world, according to Medline CEO Charlie Mills. When it came time to get products to the United States from overseas, Mills said the process was tough and costly.

“We had to spend more money air-freighting products… we were doing a lot of things to get the inventory that our customers were demanding and it was hard,” Mills said.

Mills’ grandfather started the business selling aprons to butcher shops in 1910. From those humble beginnings, the family-owned company now sells masks, medical gloves, gowns to earn $14 billion in sales last year. 

Medline’s sales began skyrocketing last January, and so far during the pandemic they’re up 17%. Masks were not its bread-and-butter, but the medical supply leader quickly answered the call as N95 masks evaded the marketplace. 

“I think the shortages that happened were due to demand literally going up tenfold,” Mills said. 

Keeping up during a pandemic was challenging even for Medline, which has 26,000 employees, 45 distribution centers and 15 manufacturing facilities doing business in 90 countries.  

It has rolled out new products including COVID-19 testing kits, sold millions of bottles of hand sanitizer and gel packs every month, and is now selling more gloves, re-processed face masks and gowns than ever before.

Meanwhile, back at Medline headquarters in Northfield only about 100 people are inside a building that normally welcomes some 1,800 employees daily.

Even Medline’s workers were sent home during the pandemic, except for the factories and warehouses which are viewed as essential in every way.

So Mills went door-to-door to deliver awards to workers from Kenosha to Chicago and some stops in-between, as his late father had done for the past 20 years.

Earlier in the summer, the company delivered care packages for all employees filled with pandemic supplies from their own factories to employees’ front doors.

It could be another example of why Medline has made the Chicago Tribune’s list of “Top Workplaces” for 10 out of the last 11 years.

Mills said family business is staying afloat in a pandemic by staying on course and taking care of one another.

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