Blue Star deal brings massive PPE production to Wythe
You can hear the pride in Bill Mosher’s voice when he talks about his dad, Ken Mosher, and his career in the medical glove business.
“He was in the glove industry for almost 50 years,” Bill Mosher says incredulously.
Ken Mosher’s storied career includes being part of a team that in 1990 invented the nitrile glove, an alternative to latex gloves used in industrial and food preparation environments. He worked in the industry when the majority of medical gloves were still produced in the United States and later watched the industry move offshore.
By 2000, the elder Mosher had founded Omni International Corp., which handled U.S. and Canadian marketing, sales and distribution of medical gloves manufactured in Asia. He retired in 2015, but it didn’t take.
A few years ago, as Bill tells it, his father began discussing plans to bring medical glove production back to the United States.
“He reached out to some folks that he knew from the industry,” Bill says. “He reached out to a few kind of new folks who had some more experience with starting businesses here in the U.S. And he kind of put this plan together with this team in order to create this new company.”
That company is Blue Star NBR LLC, which is investing $714 million to build an advanced nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR) manufacturing facility and a nitrile glove production operation on 255 acres in Wythe County’s Progress Park. The project is expected to create 2,500 jobs by 2028.
Construction on the NBR manufacturing facility began in January and it’s expected to be operational by August. The first of Blue Star NBR’s six planned glove manufacturing plants is scheduled to open by March 2023, with five more plants opening between 2023 and early 2028. When it’s operating at full capacity, Blue Star NBR plans to manufacture 20 billion nitrile gloves per year — about 18% of the nation’s current supply.
“The U.S. uses about 110 billion gloves per year and that’s growing at 9% a year,” says Blue Star NBR CEO Scott Maier.
The project was initially a joint venture with Delaware-based American Glove Innovations Inc. (AGI), but that deal fell through in January, Maier says. However, he adds, that will not impact the timeline or Blue Star’s investment or hiring plans.
Plans for Blue Star were in the works before the first cases of COVID-19 hit the United States, creating a severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gowns, gloves and other items.
Experts credit several factors for the shortage. A big one, of course, was that few PPE manufacturing facilities were located in the United States. Leaders in countries that did have PPE operations began stockpiling gloves and masks for domestic use.
Blue Star ended up locating in Southwest Virginia largely because Bill Mosher, now vice president of operations for Blue Star NBR, called up Maier, a college buddy. After some conversations, Maier came on board as CEO.
An Alexandria resident, Maier brings to the job 20 years of private equity, venture capital and manufacturing experience. In 2015, he founded Bird Dog Distributors, a medical and surgical supply company based in Clintwood, a town in Dickenson County.
Maier picked Clintwood after searching for areas designated as Historically Under-
utilized Business Zones, otherwise known as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s HUBZone program. It provides businesses located in these areas with some federal contracting incentives if they meet certain conditions, such as business size and number of workers living in the area.
He’s grown to be a champion of Southwest Virginia. “I like this area,” Maier says. “I like the workforce that’s here, and I just try to bring any business opportunity I can to this area.”
For David Manley, executive director of the Joint Industrial Development Authority of Wythe County, seeing the mammoth deal come to fruition after so much state and local work elicits feelings of pride.
“We’ve heard words like ‘game changer’ and ‘generational,’” Manley says. “And I don’t disagree with any of those characterizations. Economic developers want to improve the quality of life for communities in which they work. This is a [development] that will have positive benefits for decades to come.”
Josh Lewis, executive director of the Virginia Industrial Advancement Alliance, an agency that supports economic development efforts for several communities in Southwest Virginia, began working with Blue Star last spring.
Lewis knew Lot 24 at Progress Park could handle the massive operation that Blue Star NBR had planned. “I think everybody felt pretty comfortable that the site and the location opportunity that we were presenting to the company was a strong candidate,” he says. That didn’t mean the deal was in the bag, however.
“A lot of prospects come down and you feel optimistic, and then it doesn’t work out,” Lewis says. “But this one did.”