Venture Acceleration Fund Boosts Growth for Southwest PPE
Espanola business blazes forward with new equipment, software with VAF investment
Southwest Personal Protective Ensembles (PPE) is on fire this year. The division of Española’s Mountain Air Cleaners that is fully certified to clean, inspect, repair and reconstruct personal protective ensembles was granted a zero-interest loan by the Venture Acceleration Fund (VAF) in 2016.
Southwest PPE cleans and repairs the suits that firefighters use to fight both structural and proximity fires as well as forest fires and wildfires. Six years into the company’s evolution, employees and owners noticed that human error plus the sheer amount of time spent on paper billing were obstructing potential growth for the company.
Enter the VAF, the only organization in Northern New Mexico that provides seed money for early-stage technology startups and growth-oriented business who lack the collateral for debt financing. Funded primarily by Los Alamos National Security (LANS) and administered by the nonprofit Regional Development Corporation (RDC), the VAF has assisted Northern New Mexico businesses at critical junctures since its inception in 2006. This year, LANS is joined by Los Alamos County, the City of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County, and the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) as funding partners.
Although Southwest PPE is not brand-new, until this year their billing, packing, and data entry tasks were all performed by hand. With the seed money provided by the VAF, six tablet-style, portable computers were purchased and an entire software system was specially-designed from scratch to support operations.
Southwest PPE works with several fire departments in New Mexico, as well as departments in Colorado, Texas and Arizona. Time is saved on a large scale when multiple equipment lots are ready to be billed. The software allows viewing by lot (color-coded by fire department), so each lot can be exported to QuickBooks and emailed directly to the client. Tiered pricing has also been written into the software, drastically cutting administrative time for the company.
Billing on a computer-based system has freed up a lot of time for the company: John Sodomka of Centerville, Virginia’s South 30A, who designed, implemented and trained the Southwest PPE staff on his proprietary software, said that they estimate more than 400% improved efficiency for the company.
Getting the computer billing system up and running “is the best thing we’ve done in this business since [they] invented the washboard,” said Mountain Air Cleaners co-owner Richard Beaudoin.
The next step for Southwest PPE will be implementation of a client portal, so fire departments can log in and see which pieces of equipment are expiring and when. The color-coded portal will provide a single-stop, easy-to-use tool that will ensure client compliance with local and regional regulations. It will also serve as a budgetary planner, allowing departments to forecast necessary new equipment purchases as their old gear falls out of compliance.
The zero-interest loan from VAF has not only increased flexibility and efficiency at Southwest PPE, it has added jobs as well. Already, two other employees have been hired, with more hires planned throughout the next two years.
The technological aspect has given the business the boost it needed to scale up, said co-owner Dina Quintana, Beaudoin’s wife. Currently, departments in the region are shipping their personal protective ensembles to Southwest PPE for inspection and repair, and given the weight and amount of equipment shipped, it can be quite costly for departments. With the new, portable computer setups, a mobile crew can now do complete inspections on-site for clients for the price of sending the equipment.
“[The business] is scalable because industry standards are already set,” said Sodomka.
In addition, the time saved with the new technological advances can allow Southwest PPE to grow nationally and even internationally if clients are amenable to shipping costs. Continuing to grow the market regionally is Southwest PPE’s short-term goal.
As part of a long-lived local business—Mountain Air Cleaners is 25 years old—community connections helped them with mentoring and assistance leading up to the VAF’s award. Steve Gonzales of the RDC (also based in Española) has been working with Southwest PPE to help facilitate their current expansion. Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) out of Albuquerque helped plan and optimize the company’s physical plant operations.
Mountain Air was motivated to open the Southwest PPE division after being approached by several fire departments. “It was quite a process,” said Quintana. “But they saw there was real potential.”
In addition to the support of local departments, the manufacturers of the personal protective ensembles also encouraged them. The staff of Mountain Air Cleaners underwent special training and ordered fire-retardant materials and equipment. They were invited to watch the process in action at a similar facility in California, and worked with an onsite consultant for several months to get the Southwest PPE arm up and running.
The VAF award isn’t the first time that Southwest PPE has been recognized as a leading local business at the forefront of economic growth in the community: last year, the business won a Northern New Mexico 20/20 award after being nominated by Española mayor Alice Lucero. The Northern New Mexico 20/20 Campaign is another RDC-administered program that recognizes high-growth companies adding jobs and bringing revenue to the region.
Southwest PPE has been growing at a rate of 75 percent per year, and has been widely recognized for lengthening the lives of personal protective ensembles and reducing fire department budgets. Now, the company is poised perfectly to grow well beyond the borders of New Mexico and to create more jobs in the intermountain region as onsite inspection requests come in.
“LANS and the RDC, along with our economic development partners, are eager to see where Southwest PPE goes next,” said Val Alonzo, RDC Executive Director. “We’re thrilled at the progress they’ve already made, and know they will be an important contributor to our regional economy in the years to come.”
For more information about Mountain Air Cleaners and Southwest PPE, visit mtnair.biz/. For more information about the Venture Acceleration Fund, visit vafnm.org.
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