How one golf company went from making head covers to masks

Courtesy of Seamus Golf

At 9:04 a.m. Pacific time on Thursday, March 19, an email arrived in the inboxes of Seamus Golf's 40,000 subscribers with the subject: "We are still here."

The message began with an update on the steps the small company from Oregon that specializes in making high-end, handcrafted, hand-forged and hand-sewn golf goods was taking to protect the safety and health of its employees from the coronavirus pandemic. It continued with an emotional retrospect about Seamus' nine-year history and ended with a prelude to its immediate future.

Six days earlier, Seamus owners Akbar and Megan Chisti had closed their shop in Beaverton, a Portland suburb famously known as the home to Nike, as the coronavirus outbreak began to spread throughout the country. They sent all nonessential production employees home and furloughed one, the most recent hire, who worked on golf accounts that were, themselves, closed. Those who remained in the office worked in a newly reconfigured setup that accounted for social distancing and was cleaned nightly.

Toward the bottom of that email, in the 10th paragraph, it mentioned that Megan had started "researching how to make masks and gowns" at the behest of the Portland Business Journal to see whether Seamus could possibly help local hospitals, which, at the time, were facing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The email closed with this: "If that takes off, we will carefully make the decision to suspend the making of golf goods in efforts to help with the bigger problem.

"We are set up to do it."

It did, and they were.

Within days, Seamus had temporarily shifted from a golf company to a mask company, making and shipping 16,620 masks to 49 states and nine countries over the next nine weeks -- the largest project for a single product that Akbar has undertaken. Akbar quickly learned that a good portion of his clientele were doctors, other people in the medical field on the front lines fighting against the virus or avid golfers who fit into the high-risk categories.

Akbar's initial reaction was to help.

"We had no option but to move swiftly into it," Akbar said, "and sort of ignore the world for a couple weeks and get the s--- figured out."

Seamus completed its first prototype mask the day that email was sent. And the response to the email was resounding.

Akbar received more than 800 responses requesting more than 500,000 masks -- including one order from Boston University asking for 400,000. As he sifted through the responses, he began to learn more about his customer base

"It just became apparent that, oh, my God, like, our entire customer database is affected by this, and we could be doing this for a long time because we started learning about people needing to wear them regularly as they go to phase in," Akbar said.

"By sending that email out, we might have had a lot of information about where these PPE shortages were going. And as that started to unfold, my whole team became completely engrossed in it. So, I was like, 'We're done making golf stuff. Just pull the plug. I need you guys to focus. I need to focus. I cannot think about making head covers now.' So, we basically flipped into that."

On the afternoon of March 23, Seamus sent out another email, this one with the subject: "Website is now closed."

Seamus was now a masks company.

The golf business had taken a drastic hit and was slowing to a halt. One of Seamus' largest customers, the USGA, had already notified the company that the U.S. Open was being postponed, weeks before the announcement was public, putting a large order on hold. And most of its other customers, from resort courses such as Bandon Dunes in Oregon to private clubs such as Olympic in San Francisco, were closing and their orders were being canceled. Then there were the individual orders that were either put on hold for up to a month or were refunded.

Within a two-week span, the company lost at least $1 million worth of orders.

It was the type of hit that would shutter most small businesses, but masks saved Seamus. Switching production to the masks meant that Seamus' bank was still going to fund it.

Akbar didn't let the barrage of cancellations send him spiraling. He called some of his most important accounts and asked them to keep their orders, even promising to carry the receivables (i.e., wait to get paid).

They said yes.

Some did more. The Olympic Club doubled its order, Akbar said, and paid ahead of time for whenever Seamus got back to making golf products. It sent over lunch, too.

"We'd just like to do that," said Mark Anderson, the golf operations coordinator at the Olympic Club. "And we'd love to support these guys, people that do it the right way and for the right reasons. So, we want to keep them going. We want to keep them in business if we can, help them a little bit anyway.

"It gives me goose bumps when people step up and just do the right thing no matter what the repercussions are going to be. They didn't do this with any fanfare or anything other than just keeping people informed. And I thought, 'Hey, if these guys, in the monotony of sewing the same thing day in and day out to help your community, when these guys are sewing and they're doing head covers or putter covers or some of the fun stuff they do, at least there's some variety during the day. But this just has to be a little bit mind-numbing,' and I just thought, 'Hey it'd be a nice surprise if somebody showed up with some good food for them for lunch on a Friday.'"

At first, Akbar didn't want to sell the masks. He also knew early on that meeting 500,000 requests wasn't going to be plausible. Seamus started to donate everything it made, but Akbar soon realized he wanted to donate more masks than the company could make at the time.

Akbar's checking account was getting low, but he wasn't concerned about the financials then. He'd figure that out later. Seamus had started to receive requests from individuals and companies to donate, and Akbar quickly realized that he was going to need funding to make as many masks as he wanted -- and as he could -- so Seamus began a contribution campaign that was announced publicly before the federal stimulus package was rolled out. For $100, Seamus would send 1-20 masks to a front-line medical worker and then would send five masks to the person who made the purchase whenever there was a dip in front-line production. The package included overnight delivery for the front-line workers and ground shipping to the supporters.

That promotion lasted only about five days and brought in more than 1,000 orders. One order was for 200 masks.

It was enough to keep Seamus busy.

"This has been, like, the most emotional s---," he said. "Nobody cared if I didn't deliver a head cover."

Akbar was compelled to help. It's in his blood. Medicine, especially public medicine, has been part of Akbar's family for generations.

Akbar's grandfather, his mother's dad, converted his property in Pakistan into hospitals for the deaf, blind and underserved in the 1950s and 1960s, said Akbar's younger brother, Ali.

"My mom's dad is kind of like a figure that I aspire to be like," Akbar said.

He was also inspired by his father's father, who was a civil engineer in Pakistan and built an important dam, Akbar said.

"Like, a very, I guess, analytical, technical-mind type of person," Akbar said. "I definitely find inspiration in both of them because Pakistan is a place laden with opportunity. And they made the best of that and did the right thing when they were supposed to.

"So, our mom kind of conveyed that to us, like, 'Whenever you're giving, you should give it until it hurts.' And that's kind of what we try to do. We were definitely hurting when we were making the masks. It kinda makes me happy to be who I am."

When Seamus decided to venture into masks, Akbar understood he might not turn a profit in April or May, but went into it with a "break-even" mindset. He was nearly spot on.

The early financial returns don't paint a pretty picture: As of now, Seamus' mask project has lost the company $4,435. There's a small chance, Akbar said, that when some of the overhead costs are calculated, he could end up with a small profit.

Either way, his decision to make masks wasn't for the money. He said that May will be the first May since the company started in 2011 that wasn't profitable.

He also already expects to take losses in June and July because, in a typical year, he would have already had orders in through summer. The reduced PGA Tour schedule and closure of golf shops around the country have been two of the biggest reasons for a slide in business, despite their slow rescheduling and reopening.

At this rate, Akbar isn't forecasting a profitable month until November and said his year-end numbers will likely end in a loss that will be "immeasurable."

That has caused a shift in Seamus' model.

"The current state of our company is cautiously sustainable," said Akbar, who added that each future financial decision will be made with "great care."

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Akbar was focused on how to take care of those closest to him, thanks to Ali.

Ali is an internal medicine hospitalist at Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu, who's been working on the front lines with coronavirus patients since March. Back then, he warned his family about what was about to happen over the next month: A serious public health issue was about to spread far and wide.

Akbar and Ali are as close as brothers can get. They talk daily. They both share a passion for golf. When Ali was going through medical school at Harvard, Akbar put him on his checking account.

Ali's words meant something to Akbar.

In early March, Ali was in New York interviewing for a faculty appointment at Mount Sinai Hospital and got a sneak peek at the early days of how the pandemic was about to overwhelm New York City hospitals. In one of his conversations with Akbar, he mentioned that some of his doctor friends in New York were going to need masks. Could Akbar make some?

"I was like, 'Dude, I don't know how to make a mask, and I don't want somebody wearing one of my masks to get the coronavirus and die,'" Akbar said. "If I don't know how to do it and I send them some s---, then this could be bad. So, then I started hearing more and thinking about how to do it because I wasn't in a position at that time to solve that immediately."

But Akbar quickly got to work.

His team researched designs on March 18 and made its first prototype on March 19. The first small-batch production run was on March 20. Those masks were sent to a select number of front-line medical workers, including some customers who were doctors, Akbar's cousin, an oncologist in Chicago, and Ali. Seamus' first iteration of its mask was an over-the-ear design.

"We put it on and tried to work in it, and we're like, 'This sucks because you can't breathe, and it's uncomfortable,'" Akbar said.

The feedback helped redesign the masks. Ali told Akbar the lining was important, as was a good seal to help the mask's ability to expand to fit different face sizes. The masks also needed a piece of copper, which Akbar made in-house, across the bridge of the nose so the mask could form to the wearer's face. The strings needed to be longer, and the area to hold a filter needed to change from a side entrance to a top opening, so gravity could do its job and keep the filter in place.

The final version had two layers, longer strings and the top-loading area for the filter. Masks started shipping in earnest on March 31.

"The design changed a lot," Akbar said, "and the end result is basically a mask that looks like the masks from 'M*A*S*H.'"

He sits on the City of Portland's Golf Advisory Committee, which needed 250 masks to outfit the staff at the city's five courses. He made all of them. Now, as Akbar goes around town and sees businesses without masks, he simply donates what they need. He also has donated to organizations such as the Inglewood Police Department in California, Habitat for Humanity in Portland, the Baltimore Police Department, the Cook Children's Medical Center in Texas and Battalion 19, Engine 72, Ladder 33 of the Fire Department of New York.

Early on, Seamus couldn't keep up with demand.

A couple weeks in, Seamus has shipped 5,960 masks, with a single-day high of 790, to 49 states and nine countries.

In May, Seamus took its response to the pandemic one step further, working with one of its partners, Jones Sports Co., a Portland-based company known for making golf bags, to sell hand sanitizer. Jones had worked with a local distiller to make the sanitizer. Seamus sold the sanitizer as part of a package that includes a mask, a ball marker and a small bottle of sanitizer.

"This endeavor was one that was more to both have some fun and sell a useful product to our customers," Akbar said. "We didn't sell so many bottles, but maybe it encouraged our golfers to think about using sanitizer when on the course."

It became an as-many-hands-on-deck-as-possible effort. About 15 of Seamus' 30 employees are sewers. Megan helped out when needed, and she has taught their 7-year-old daughter to sew, as well, Akbar said. However, Akbar isn't allowed to sew, he said, laughing. His employees won't let him.

In early April, with demand soaring, Akbar tried to "unfurlough" another shop by bringing on some of its sewers, but that idea fell through. He eventually started working with another shop that saw its workload quickly shrink when the PPE demand in the Portland area decreased. He brought on about six or seven other sewers to help Seamus during its peaks, which meant day, night and weekend shifts.

However, attrition has hit Seamus. It went from 31 total employees in December to 23 as of last week.

When Seamus shifted back to a for-profit model, it found some friends waiting to help. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which is four hours south of Beaverton, ordered 2,000 masks for its staff, guests and golfers. And general manager Don Crowe said it won't be the resort's only order.

Akbar worked at Bandon Dunes from 2001 to 2004, and its golf shop was one of his first customers when Akbar started Seamus. To see Akbar put his golf company on hold to make masks, and then to be able to help him, has helped everything come full circle for Crowe.

"It feels good," Crowe said. "I look at him as a brother. I mean he is really a great guy. Everyone loves him. And there's no one that will ever say a bad word about him anywhere that I could find, but certainly in Bandon. He is the greatest guy when he comes around.

"We absolutely support him. He's a great guy. It's the right thing to do, gives back to the community because he will put these out to different organizations that are in need. So, it was a no-brainer to help and support him."

Sand Valley Golf Resort, among other courses and resorts, also ordered masks.

As the weeks went by, Akbar saw a shift in demand from front-line workers to organizations to consumers. He could also look at a map of shipments and see where the virus was surging and slowing. When Seamus first began making masks, the demand was entirely from front-line workers, then it slowed to half and now it's very few to none.

Masks will be a part of Seamus' catalogue for the time being, Akbar says now. But with the masks not being approved by the FDA, Akbar said Seamus will be getting out of the "front-line business" and won't be "pursuing anything in the health care industry" while starting to refocus on golf.

"I think during a pandemic, it's kind of like anything goes," he said. "If a doctor asks to do it [you do it]. But doctors aren't asking for them anymore."

But, with the rush over, for now at least, Seamus, like the rest of the country, is starting to get back to golf. And at Seamus' Beaverton offices, it's been welcomed with open arms.

"It kept us afloat through this," Akbar said of the masks. "I think that when we look back at this, I will see it as one of the more important experiences of my life. Because, by shutting down and having really no distractions and limitations on what we could do, we wound up doing things that we really love.

"So, golf was available, but more important than that, I spent a lot of time with my family and catching up with a lot of old friends that I've kind of forgotten to spend that amount of time with because either I thought I didn't have it or I just thought that other things were important, so I've been humbled by it."