This textile enterprise overcame numerous hurdles and challenges to deliver quality through innovation and resilience in the time of crisis and need

With a successful history in garment manufacturing and exports since 1992, ESSTEE Exports based in Tirupur has always raised the benchmark for Quality in all its ventures. ESSTEE’s Health care Division is the first company in the South Indian market to get its 3 Ply surgical facemask approved under the U.S. FDA 510(K) category and also got the company listed in U.S FDA under the medical devices segment. Sensing the opportunity and requirement in the market after the first lockdown in 2020, the company decided to take a step forward and raising the bar for producing the highest quality masks and PPE gowns in the domestic market.

What triggered the making of masks when there are so many companies already making them?

Mrs. T Leellavathi, MD, ESSTEE Exports
Mr. N Thirukkumaran, CEO, ESSTEE Exports

The company’s primary focus has been PPE’s which consist of Surgical Face Masks, High-performance half face filter masks, medical coveralls, Isolation gowns, bouffant caps etc. During the time of the pandemic, the company looked for sourcing good quality protective masks for their employees and was not happy with the quality available in the market. This opened up the idea to invest and engage in the manufacturing of top-of-the-line protective face masks and other PPE devices which would meet the Indian and international standards. This was also the main objective which Mr.Thirukkumaran and Mrs.Leellavathi had in mind while venturing into this new stream.

What were the challenges and how did the company overcome those challenges?

The company focused on increasing its organic footprint with a 5-10% YOY growth rather than looking towards aggressive growth in the conventional manufacturing process. The company has an annual turnover of 125 crores with a stable and highly dedicated workforce of 1250 people among which more than 50% is comprised of women employees. With long standing association with reputed clients such as GUESS (USA), the company continues its focus on innovation and quality. However, entering into the manufacturing of Health care devices was absolutely something new and the company has invested heavily in understanding the technical know-how and in acquiring the expertise to instil and execute the whole manufacturing process.

Valuing knowledge and expert advice, mapping the market understanding the need, and driving the requirement through innovation has been a good strategy of the top management. The expert advice from ESSTEE HEALTH CARE’s technical consultant, Mr. Kannan who has ample experience in the field of textile testing acted as the backbone in venturing into this new stream and setting up a ‘State of the Art’ PPE manufacturing unit as well as a world-class PPE testing laboratory. The masks that the company produces are sold under the brand name VELGUARD. This brand is registered in India, Europe, and the U.S.A.

Mr. Thirukkumaran smiles with pride pointing out that “the tests calibrated in the lab at their premises are more stringent and hence gives more confidence about the product they produce.”

There are a lot of firsts in the PPE testing laboratory established under the name VIRIDIAN TESTING LABORATORIES LLP. It is one of the first laboratories to be established in India capable of testing the PPE fabric quality and one of the kind facility where under a single roof all major PPE standards can be tested. A total of performing 117 tests can be performed here with respect to various national and international testing standards.

The PPE Devices manufacturing facility is BIS Certified, with ISO 9001:2015 (Quality Management), ISO 13485:2016 (Medical devices, quality management system) and OEKO Tex certified. Around 50-60% are Organic Textiles, Fair Trade Cotton Certified, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified, Recycled textiles are also used.

Today, the company manufactures 300,000 3 Ply Surgical face masks, 25000 N95 Masks/FFP2 respirators, 10,000 Isolation gowns and 5,000 PPE coveralls per day.

Process of FDA approvals:

FDA approvals are expensive and comprises of rigorous testing and documentation procedures. There is a pre-approval form which is filled through an authorized agent. The firm used the services of a US consulting firm and the claims need to be supported through the NABL accredited lab testing, at that time a third-party service was chosen. Once this phase is over, bio compatibility test of the product is required which requires any were between 8 to 12 weeks of time.

What about sourcing the products and markets?

Raw materials were initially sourced from China as they were already doing huge quantities of PPE and related products and it was easier to source the right material instantaneously. Gradually we started working with domestic manufactured and established a supply of raw materials as per our quality standards. Presently the product is a 100% made in India product, and the sourcing of raw materials is from Gujarat. In the healthcare field, the masks and PPE need to be splash resistant. So, the product quality warrants the use of virgin polymers as recycled polymers are not good enough to have good splash resistant properties.

Mr. Kumaran clarifies that although the USA, Canada and Europe are good markets, Gulf is also a good market for quality products for Indian manufacturers. The markets are competitive; however, ESSTEE has put quality as the primary factor for all its products.

Environmental, Social Commitment and Women Empowerment:

The company does rainwater harvesting and measures its impact. A change in ground-water level through recharge is a heartening reminder of how much more can be done. Waste is segregated and distributed through authorised vendors, and the company uses the services of a bio-waste management agency for proper disposal of the same. Production of N95 masks generates minor polyester waste which is used as raw material for recycled polyester products. Water is a closed-loop system at the unit and windmills supporting renewable energy generation.

“On the community front, the company has adopted a high school nearby their facility and has supported the school by creating infrastructure which includes interactive classrooms, playground, providing safe drinking water and computers. Student strength has more than doubled in the last two years and is rated as one of the best schools in the state.

One of the areas that we want to develop further is creating a leadership pipeline for women, in both supervisory and managerial roles. “We have been training and supporting women’s education, welfare and have supported single women in helping with their children’s education. We believe that women have strong work ethics, and they are very connected with the organization and it works wonderfully well for us and them” states Mr. Kumaran.

Way Forward

Mr. Kumaran is upbeat and confident with the quality their product in a niche market. There is ample market potential in markets in and outside of India. The export potential to the US, Europe, and Gulf is what the company will focus on. Valuing knowledge and investing in innovation are yielding excellent results for the company. Crisis times are perhaps door knocks for us in divergent thinking and arriving upon new strategies and companies who have the equanimity to sense this always make greater strides.