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When Leslie Jordan went from math to marketing 35 years ago, she didn’t see face masks in her future.

Her northwest Portland company, Leslie Jordan, Inc., has designed and manufactured T-shirts, jackets, bags and medals for both local and national athletic events.

Then COVID-19 came calling and slowed her business to a crawl. Struggling to keep her staff of 25 employed and her company afloat, a frantic email from a friend provided an answer.

“Please help!” it read. “The hospital where my husband practices is running out of masks!”

The next morning, an unrelated call came in from a harried local medical supplier with customers desperate for masks. He remembered Jordan’s Tyvek jackets from 30 years before, and wondered if her factories could use her present fabric — non-woven polypropylene — to make masks and gowns.

“That email and phone call had a great impact on me,” Jordan says. “But I was trying to deal with my business shutting down then and had no interest in going into PPE (personal protective equipment). In March some running events I usually supplied were cancelling and we were down 50% in the running niche, but I couldn’t shut down because customers had questions. So, I reduced hours and laid a couple of people off until I could get a feel for what was going on.”

That feel came pretty fast. Jordan realized this would be a good opportunity to help the medical industry while keeping her company alive until the event industry came back running.

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By the end of June, she was providing over 10 million masks and 200,000 gowns, including disposable ones for both medical and public use, plus a line of customizable and reusable cloth masks. Her staff has now been back and busy since early May.

It wasn’t easy. She started by applying for and receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration to cover her employees.

Next came three to four weeks of research.

“After the medical supplier called, I researched why there were defective products, false claims and scams, and why so many products were just sitting in Chinese harbors,” Jordan says. “Companies were pre-paying for masks that were never received. In all my years of importing apparel, I’d never seen such a nightmare. What has broken down? I found there were many different levels of masks, from civil to surgical and everything in between. And gowns had different levels of performance.”

Jordan tried to get answers from U.S. Customs and was referred to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She realized her company needed to be FDA-registered, and have factories that were FDA-certified.

She usually partnered with 30 factories in six countries — mostly China, Egypt and Pakistan. The registration and certification process was “long and tedious” and took several weeks.

She found that many factories did not have the correct export license, which was expensive. So, some tried to import to the United States by going through other countries such as India, where the product often got stuck.

“I nipped all this in the bud by avoiding using factories unqualified to export to our country,” she says. “After some testing of shipments by boat and air, I told my husband Ray, ‘I think I finally have my act together and can now call and sell to a customer.’”

She sent some mailings to medical supply companies, but mostly did business through people she knew. She called a friend in the senior living field whom she’d known since he was 5 years old.

Now she sells masks and gowns to medical and veterinary clinics, hospitals, senior living facilities, food-packaging companies, dental offices and schools. And her company’s neck buffs or “race wraps, typically used for running event give-aways, are now also used as face wraps.

All of her research was done from Jordan’s own condo, which she shares with the loves of her life — husband Ray and four Persian cats. They are never far from her mind as she wears cat earrings and necklaces, and has cat figurines and pictures in her office and condo. One of her business brands is Cool Cat, and her T-shirts are branded Cheetah T’s after the fastest-running feline.

From home, Jordan spends her days with customers on the phone and online, listening to webinars about virtual running events, helping her staff answer questions, and working on the new PPE side of her business. Then at 5 p.m., she talks with her factories in China, with a break for dinner, and continues working until about 2 a.m. She used to sometimes take a walk at midnight. Then she’s up by 9 a.m.

In fact, her business started in the family room of an earlier condo in 1986, when she was a sales representative for Tyvek graphic jackets. She later took over the company.

Ten years later she became her own manufacturer and, in 2002, added more products for customers who wanted one-stop shopping, and she cut costs by going to offshore factories. She says her business suits her personality since she loves working with people, shopping and apparel, graphics and art, and creating and developing new products.

“It was a very up marketplace with events that are positive and uplifting,” Jordan says. “I couldn’t work in a hospital with sick people.”

She experienced that in 2000 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, so she set up shop at the chemotherapy clinic with a chair in the corner plus a computer and her cell phone. Both she and her business survived.

At ease with numbers as a former high school math teacher in New York, where she grew up, Jordan cited some big gown orders she’s working on now, including a bid for five million gowns for one state, and a bid for a yearly delivery of 100,000 to 50 million gowns in another state.

“What is unique about what we are doing is being able to import one- to two-million masks or gowns in a record-breaking two- to three-week time frame,” Jordan says. “After long months of fear for our company staying afloat plus pain-staking research, we were able to figure it out and succeed.”

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