Governor’s secretary visits Suffolk

Published 11:29 pm Friday, May 11, 2012

Kerma Medical Products quality manager Mark Hanna, right, explains to state Secretary of Administration Lisa Hicks-Thomas, left, how the company tests its products before sending them out the door. Listening in are Kerma CEO Joe Reubel, center, and state Director of Supplier Diversity Mark Cartwright, beside Hanna.

Members of the governor’s administration visited a Suffolk business Friday to learn more about its entrepreneurship, diversity and job creation.

The visit to Kerma Medical Products on Suburban Drive was part of what Gov. Bob McDonnell declared the “Year of the Entrepreneur.” Secretary of Administration Lisa Hicks-Thomas, who oversees the state’s certification of small and minority-owned businesses, toured the building and had lunch with Kerma employees and other members of the governor’s office.

“We’re really looking at small businesses and diverse businesses,” Hicks-Thomas said. “We want to showcase these businesses to show Virginia is a great place to start a business or grow a business if you already have one.”

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Kerma Medical Products was formed in 1991 and has grown quickly. It now manufactures, packages, assembles and supplies around 30,000 different products to the government and health care industry.

Its annual sales topped $49 million in 2011. More than half of that growth has been since 2007, during the grips of a recession that drove many small and large businesses to bankruptcy.

The company moved from Portsmouth to Suffolk and expanded a year ago. Its building is 106,000 square feet and has adjacent land for expansion, which it plans on taking advantage of.

Joe Reubel, president and chief executive officer of Kerma Medical, attributes the business’ success to a number of factors — having a diverse workforce, treating its employees right and having another business as mentor, among other things.

Reubel, who is black and served in the military, qualifies the business as minority-owned and veteran-owned. He explained his efforts not only to diversify his own workforce, but also to encourage companies he works with to diversify.

The company also makes an effort to treat its employees with respect, Reubel said. The company pays 100 percent of its employees’ health insurance premiums and pays yearly bonuses. It also provides intangible benefits such as opportunity for promotion and a Mother’s Day luncheon held this week for all the employees.

“The growth is only sustainable when you have good people behind you,” Reubel said.

But the original key to Kerma’s success was a mentoring relationship with another health care company, Owens&Minor Medical Inc. Owens&Minor taught Kerma how to make its first product, a burn dressing pad it supplied to the federal government.

Reubel also addressed his efforts to balance technological advances with keeping people employed.

“We want to make sure we’re not putting people out of work” by automating processes, he said.

Rather, quality manager Mark Hanna added, the company is looking at getting a new machine that will triple its current production of disposable washcloths, which will command the services of even more workers.

“The new machine will help us grow jobs in the future,” Hanna said.

The officials also talked about problems the state government faces when it tries to supply its needs from small businesses. The price is often too high, said Mark Cartwright, director of supplier diversity in the Office of the Governor. Sometimes, the companies does not have enough capacity to provide the amount needed or cannot provide it soon enough.

“The state has 171 agencies,” Cartwright said, “so we buy a lot of stuff. We have to have some diverse firms ready to fill that gap.”

The officials ended lunch by giving Reubel some tips on supplying to the state, including state and university hospitals.