During this challenging time, the Birthing of Giants community has pulled together to share their strategies for responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and pivot their business plans to survive and thrive through the crisis. We’d like to share some of those conversations with you.
In part one of our coronavirus business pivot talks, we spoke with Mobile Outfitters co-founders, Eric Griffin and Dennis O’Donnell. In part two Newport LLC founder, Doug Tatum, interviews Rob Hrabe, co-founder and CEO of VRC Metal Systems.
These are actual conversations with business owners during this time of global upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve edited for brevity, but you can listen to the full recording below. Rob Hrabe’s interview begins at around the 30:00 mark.
DATE: April 1, 2020
INSTRUCTOR: Doug Tatum, founder of Newport LLC, author of No Man’s Land, Birthing of Giants Board of Experts member.
INTERVIEWING: Rob Hrabe, CEO and co-founder of VRC Metal Systems.
YEAR FOUNDED: 2013
HEADQUARTERS: Ellsworth, SD
2019 REVENUE: $16 million
BUSINESS SNAPSHOT: 65 employees, expanding globally
Doug Tatum: Rob, you are a combat veteran and flew a B-1 bomber for the U.S. Air Force. During your time in the military, you came across a technology that came from another part of the world but ended up at a very prestigious engineering school in South Dakota. How did you start the business?
Rob Hrabe: We started out of the economic crisis actually. B-1 bombers were flying out of Ellsworth, South Dakota when the base got shut down for economic reasons. The Air Force hired me as a consultant to look at technology at the South Dakota School of Mines. They wanted to see if it could be used to work on repairing aging aircraft at the base.
We ended up innovating ‘cold spray technology’ from that work, which is a welding technology. We made it more portable and grew VRC Metal Systems from there.
What is Cold Spray?
Doug: To visualize what VRC Metal Systems and cold spray welding can do, I visited the local Air Force base where they were repairing a panel from a B-1 Bomber aircraft. It was a few feet wide by a few feet long and cost about $250,000 to make. With cold spray welding, it looks like spraying paint, but it’s really delivering particles of metal at supersonic speeds that are binding to the metal for a fraction of the cost. Repairing that panel, rather than replacing it, saves the U.S. Government tons of money.
Rob, you have been thinking about the antiviral properties of copper for several months. Do you think there’s an opportunity for your company, because nobody in the world but you can spray copper on another metal surface?
The Coronavirus Business Pivot
Rob: The antiviral antibacterial properties of copper had been well known for quite some time, dating back to biblical times. But the problem is [that] it’s expensive to coat surfaces in copper.
There’s never really been an impetus to coat things in copper. The coronavirus will live on a plastic surface for around three days, but it can only live on copper for around four hours. So, for things like door handles and handrails and things you hold on to on mass transit, cell phones, etc. you can make them antiviral. Now people are willing to pay for that.
“We’ve successfully identified capital sources even in this environment, that can be put on line.” – Doug Tatum, founder of Newport LLC.
Lining Up Capital
Doug: And now we’ve successfully identified capital sources even in this environment, that can be put on line. One of the things you’re looking at is restructuring your balance sheet now that banks are wide open along with the SBA (Small Business Administration).
Rob: There’s some impact on banks but they don’t really seem to be hunkering down. I think they’re willing to work with you to keep your business afloat.
Doug: I think the banks recognize this as a once in a decade chance to create some market share so it’s an opportunity for them to show what banks can do.
If you missed Part 1 of these talks focusing on how to successfully pivot through the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic, you can watch it here. Stay tuned for more talks with entrepreneurs on how they’re adapting their businesses through the crisis.
And catch all of our Locked-Down-Lunch-And-Learn Webinars on our Vimeo channel by clicking here.