Julie Copeland, CEO of 75-year-old safety distributor Arbill since 2005, is committed to making her customers safer – every day. To do this, the distributor has developed a deep set of services, including training and compliance, as well as a private-label product line to meet customers’ needs. Arbill has also made diversity a priority, recognizing that to understand the needs of a diverse customer base, you need a diverse team.
Copeland spoke with Distribution Strategy Group about how the distributor has carved out its spot in the market with a focused strategy centered on the customer. She also discussed the changes that COVID-19 wrought on the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) industry, and the challenges that have come with that, including misinformation and lower-quality product. She shared how they responded to those shifts, including the launch of a new product line for consumers in 2020.
Distribution Strategy Group: Tell us about your passion for keeping people safe.
Julie Copeland: There’s very much delineation around what we will do and what we won’t do. In terms of being birthed out of distribution, we truly want to grow our business, and while we do that, we want to do good for the world. So, it’s extremely important to me and to our values that we are protecting people and ensuring that they’re living a better life because of the work that we’re doing in partnership with their employers.
I sit here thinking that maybe our reach and belief is having an impact, because I remember early on people would sort of roll their eyes about this approach. We carved our way out of items and services that didn’t fit that model, and we deliver on things that make lives safer – whether it’s in our industrial market or government, or now our consumer marketplace, we are constantly thinking, testing, applying this outlook around, “Does this do good? Does this enhance someone’s life? Does it make them safer?” If so, then let’s proceed.
DSG: Could you describe where Arbill plays in the services space?
Copeland: The services piece is a very important part in our partnership with our customers. Safety is not something you should just lock and load and never shift, because your applications are constantly changing, and we see manufacturing always innovating and adjusting. As soon as you shift in any way, you want to re-look at the way that you are protecting your employees. In that way, our clients lean on us and we have environmental health and safety (EH&S) expertise on staff available to help them because they too have their own EH&S team. But what is so valuable is the fact that we can come in without the blind spots that they have. We look holistically at protecting all employees. They need far more than just PPE, and they need to make sure that the PPE that they’re wearing is the best that’s available. An unsafe workplace is expensive.
DSG: On your website you talk about your EH&S management services. You say you have more than 60 OSHA compliance and safety training programs, which is unusually high in a good way. You also offer site assessments, audits, staff augmentations, industrial hygiene services that seems to go above what the normal safety distributor would offer. How is that working for you and how does that contribute to customer loyalty?
Copeland: You can’t protect, in our view, just by PPE. To have a partnership with Arbill, you get so much more than just the right product and stock at the right time delivered and all of that; we’re also able to provide great depth on EH&S.
We are safety experts, and we’ve got a team behind it that can help and doing site audits is a key piece of it. It’s as important as that, as well as classes. Oftentimes organizations just don’t have their EH&S talent with the proper certifications needed for a particular type of training or programming that they need to do. So, it’s great to get it augmented by Arbill. We can support them in any way that they need. It’s everything safety. They can turn to us for all of that.
DSG: How did you come up with your tagline “Safer Every Day?”
Copeland: Sitting around the room with my bunch of smart people saying, “What are we trying to accomplish for people?” The answer was, “We just want them to be safer and better every day.” That’s what we want to accomplish, and it turns out it ended up being for more divisions than we originally expected. It started with just the industrial marketplace, but we then realized that the government was being underserved and we then expanded there, and now we want to make civilians’ world safer every day, and that became evident in COVID. Nothing felt more truthful on that statement than in the middle of COVID.
DSG: Those were guiding principles when you developed a special mask of your own during COVID. Right?
DSG: First of all, you were concerned that many of the masks weren’t actually meeting the specs claimed, and also about the environmental impact of all these masks getting discarded. Do you want to give us a little background on why you did what you did, how you did it, and the outcome?
Copeland: Early on, we recognized that we had to make a new PPE product that was solid. Whether or not it needed to be at the level of a respirator was unclear. But for everyday civilians, we knew they had to do or wear something. We knew what we were protecting against because there was data on the virus and how large it was – and that’s what we were filtering against.
Once we achieved that barrier, we then worked towards creating something that was the most breathable, because that was the comfort factor. I could put duct tape on your mouth to protect you and give you proper filtration, but you’re not going to wear it. The next thing became getting the most breathable while maintaining the filtration that we absolutely had to have, and that afforded us the opportunity to build out something that we thought was pretty remarkable in the marketplace.
The other thing we thought about is usability. These are the things we go through whenever we’re creating a product. We need this to last, because if it doesn’t last, we’re throwing away so much stuff. We were able to make something that could wash and be reused over 50 times, and it would still carry the same protective characteristics, which was essential.
Then the last piece for us was, can this decompose quickly and not do what everything in the market was doing? There are certain people who have to have N95. There’s nothing better than that, but that is not always necessary. There’s a much better path forward, that won’t take 450 years to decompose. It was important that our product decompose only in five months. You can wear it over 50 times, and it provides, first and foremost, the proper level of protection.
DSG: It sounds like you created a product that really does not have trade-offs per se. Does it end up being more expensive as a result of what you’re doing?
Copeland: It’s 0.8 cents a use, so it’s extremely affordable. That was another key piece for us, because we know what PPE should cost. We’re very careful to bring things to the market so that they are properly affordable. It remained in that range throughout, where you also saw lots of price gouging through this whole COVID experience, and that was never the path we took. We took a path which was, we need to protect as many people as we possibly can, because then we can get on with the business of living.
DSG: You accomplished all of this in a short period of time. You must have rallied your whole team around this, correct?
Copeland: Absolutely. What I would tell you is we already had this sort of innovation muscle cooking at Arbill. It’s part of who we are. We just shifted our energy to this and put all hands on deck to create something that would still meet our demands. As we were racing to protect as many people as possible, we still took our time to ensure that we were developing the right product for the situation that we were in as a country, and quite frankly, as a world.
DSG: In COVID parlance, you were a truly essential business.
Copeland: I remember one day early on, local police came by, and the officer stopped me and says, “If you need anything, you let us know. We are here to help. Do you need us to help drive any of your employees and help with your commuting? Because we know you don’t want them on the bus.” I just got out of my car and I, with my proper mask on, gave the police officer a hug and just was so grateful for showing that kind of love and support. Our team was incredible. We were very much a part of the solution. We were very much essential.
DSG: On your website you have a diversity statement that reads, “Arbill’s commitment to diverse workforce has helped us grow in our agility and flexibility to meet our customer needs. We share different points of view so we can arrive at the best solution.” Can you go through some of your thinking experience on that?
Copeland: It’s very much part of the fabric of our organization to have diversity in everything that we do. Diversity in thought is so important, especially when you think about who your buyers are, who your customers are, they’re all diverse in nature. It’s very important that you understand and appreciate what their lives are, what they’re going through. It helps us in our decision-making process when you have women leaders and what that life looks like versus male leaders who might also have a working spouse. That creates all different kinds of work outcomes for people and all different kinds of outlooks in the way that we make decisions. It’s very much a part of how we look at everything.
It’s also how we also source new vendors. We’re always looking to make sure that we include diverse suppliers in the mix – and we have to go look for them, because they’re a little harder to find. We’ve gained a lot of value by having this outlook and bringing that type of attitude to our whole workplace.
DSG: Are there key lessons that you have learned along the way that you can share that maybe reduce the learning curve or help other women succeed more quickly because you’re able to understand the situations they face better than maybe other mentors they have?
Copeland: I have always been told, be easy on yourself – but any woman who’s striving to get ahead and try and have it all, that’s very hard to do. My big advice is keep surrounding yourself with great people, and surround yourself with diversity of thought, because without it, it makes the challenge far harder.
In addition to leading Arbill, Copeland is heavily involved in WBENC, an organization committed to raising up other women to thrive in the workplace, where she was on the Board for six years. She serves on the Board of the National Association of Manufacturers and is currently on the Board of her local American Red Cross. She leads by example, and Arbill team members are all encouraged to give back to their communities. Copeland holds a BS in communications from Syracuse University, and an MBA from Temple University, and has several attended executive programs to further augment her knowledge.