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Shield Crusader: Cowan Graphics Helps to Save Albertans

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Blaine MacMillan, Cowan graphics president. Photo by EPIC Photography Inc.

So far, 2020 can best be described as interesting – and by interesting, we mean being caught off guard by an energy war that was eclipsed by a global pandemic that was followed by murder hornets as a swarm of locust devastated parts of the world. Yes, this is the year of plague and pestilence, but even all that is not enough to get Alberta’s entrepreneurial-focused businesses down. Despite enforced closures and social distancing, this province’s businesses found ways to adapt on the fly, and Cowan Graphics is one of them.

This family-owned and operated graphics manufacturer provides complete services for vehicle markings, retail graphics solutions, wayfinding signage, tactile and Braille signs, building murals, window graphics, event signage, decals, tags, magnets and regulatory and construction compliance signage. With 135,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space across Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon, and with everything from the most sophisticated machines to the most precise hand-finished products in play, it’s no wonder this local company has had made a big impact in Alberta for 75 years.

You may not know the name, but you know their work. Cowan Graphics has been the manufacturer of everything from massive vinyl ad wraps at Edmonton and Calgary’s international airports to the large department signs at your local Safeway and Sobeys stores. They do the small things too: banners, fridge magnets, decals, coroplast signs, etc. There are too many products to list. Basically, if you need graphic work done, Cowan Graphics has the experience and equipment to bring your ideas to life – and all of the manufacturing is done completely in house.

It all started in 1945 when World War II ended.

“We started out by bronzing baby shoes, hand painting silk ties and manufacturing crests,” says Blaine MacMillan, the company president. From there Cowan grew to service an international market with hundreds of products for every industry and in every medium. “We were able to grow rapidly because we are creative,” he continues. “We are committed to asking what our customers need, and we provide innovative solutions for those needs.”

This year, what customers desperately needed was PPE, and Cowan Graphics delivered.

“When the first signs of the outbreak were shared and the gravity of the global challenge was identified, I was very challenged to see how our company could survive going forward,” MacMillan admits. “We felt we needed to be considered as an essential service provider so we could remain at work (at least a portion of the plant). We were very concerned for our staff, both for their personal wellbeing and the ability to earn an income through the pandemic. We also felt strongly that there had to be products we could build that were relevant and useful, so we set about trying to find what those products might be.”

Everything changed on March 23rd. MacMillan had reached out to a friend’s business in California (Image Options) to see if they were still open and if they possibly needed any help.

“I had assumed they were shut down fully, but he shared they were still open,” says MacMillan. “They were hobbling along and had started to build face shields. I asked him to send me a photo. We said, ‘we can build these.’ We looked at the build closely and made a few changes to improve on the design. With our own face shield now in place, we purchased enough material to make 100,000 face shields (without having pre-sold any).”

Two and a half weeks later they had sold 1.2 million.

For MacMillan, who had thought the shields would be the only product they could possibly sell to keep the doors open, the realization was staggering – and daunting.

“It was a great result, but how in the heck were we going to build all of these?” MacMillan shakes his head. “The raw materials were getting increasingly hard to source and the transportation of goods had largely been shut down, so the going got really tough.”

As the pandemic swept the world and the need for PPE skyrocketed, transportation routes were not the only issue. Supply shipments of all sorts were being outbid, even after they were bought and paid for, some orders simply disappeared in transit. Cowan Graphics, who knew the benefits of a globally connected market, was suddenly now a victim of it, along with everyone else that relied on resources abroad to supply raw materials, products and goods.

But that wasn’t enough to stop them. Not even close. Cowan Graphics always had a can-do attitude, and with Albertans in desperate need of PPE, everyone rolled up their sleeves and got busy… literally.

“We have sent the actual assembly home to over 150 families who were taking boxes of the components home and returning the next day with a completed product,” explains MacMillan. “We have had help from many family and friends who are very resolved to do their part to put an end to this crippling pandemic. We even had a church (Salisbury United, whose members were doing the work and donating the monies earned back to the church) as an example of the creativity used to help us through the supply and manufacture of this product. At our peak we sent 210 boxes home (240 shields per box) so that equates to 50,400 shields per day. All this in about six weeks time. Crazy!”

Crazy? Absolutely. But did it work? Yes it did, and MacMillan quickly states that the only reason it did was on account of his staff and management. “Without our team, we are nothing. The commitment shown and the level of resolve given was incredibly humbling to me, personally. Our entire staff rallied and did everything that was needed to make this happen. I am an incredibly lucky business owner and have my entire team to thank for the result.”

Now, in addition to face shields, Cowan Graphics is manufacturing a full range of COVID-19 safety products such as banners, floor graphics (decals), plexiglass sneeze guards and a wide range of safety signage.

Their new pandemic-themed graphic on their homepage shows their characteristic optimism during the midst of overwhelming odds. Front and center are the words, “Let’s do our part.”

MacMillan says, “We understand that this is a very difficult time for all, and the health and safety of our customers and staff remains a top priority.”

To truly understand the impact of what Cowan Graphics has achieved, let’s revisit the roots of the problem. Roots, because this is a multi-pronged issue that only starts with the virus itself.

Coronaviruses include a large group of viruses that affects humans and animals. Typically, these viruses are very mild and it’s rare for a type that infects animals to have the ability to also impact humans.

And yet, here we are.

COVID-19 is a type of virus that is “novel” because it is new to us. Until 2020 we didn’t know about it and now, even months into the pandemic, we are still learning about. It’s been a steep learning curve.

We do know that since COVID-19 mainly affects the lips, throat and lungs, and since it is mostly transmitted through droplets caused by coughing, sneezing, or even exhaling moist air, the need for face shields was apparent from the get go. Breathing is fundamental to being alive, but at the same time the very air we are breathing in and out could be transmitting the disease to other humans.

With just an inkling about how fast COVID-19 was about to spread, the world went into a panic. Everyone wanted – needed – PPE. Shields, masks, gloves, ventilators… you know it’s a hot commodity when the doodads we order by the millions on Amazon all but stop shipping so there can be faster movement of soap, sanitizer, (toilet paper for some reason), and of course, PPE.

This brought us to the second root of the problem. Over the years the world has become increasingly global. This was a great thing, until it suddenly wasn’t. Most countries, ours included, couldn’t look within their own borders for a full supply of necessary PPE and with everyone around the world wanting it, well, you know what happened. You lived through it, after all.

MacMillan sums up the problems best when he says, “We are all challenged with how our lives have been changed and the severity of the actions required to put this pandemic behind us.”

Swift action, drastic measures, and protection became the norm, but protection was a weak link – until that good old Alberta entrepreneurial spirit came roaring back to the forefront.

The Government of Canada put out a cry for help to its own manufacturers, along with guidelines on how to create safe PPE products, noting, “During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for certain medical devices, including personal protective equipment (PPE), may exceed the available supply in Canada. Health Canada recognizes that organizations may seek innovative manufacturing approaches to produce PPE for healthcare workers, including 3D printing, to respond to increased demand and overall interruptions to the global supply of these products. These organizations may include those that do not traditionally manufacture PPE, such as research and academic institutions, and other industry sectors.”

Cowan Graphics was one of many companies to respond, even though it was never a simple matter of just assembling some products and creating face shields. The Government of Canada’s list of requirements to meet the necessary safety standards is extensive. Not only did Cowan have to meet these exacting standards, they had to do so with record speed, while keeping their staff safe, while battling the shutdown of the province, while facing unprecedented interruptions in the supply chain.

But they did it. They did it because it was the right thing to do.

Alberta, as much as it claims to be business-friendly, has stumbled over the past years in how to best protect, promote and support its many businesses. Cowan has had many opportunities to uproot the company and replant in an easier environment, but for MacMillan, that would be turning his back on his local community, his valued staff and the province he loves. He and his company have always been among Alberta’s strongest champions, and he has done everything in his power to not only supply the best quality products locally and abroad, but to also nurture a local workforce and help them provide for their families. With a pandemic threatening the people in the province he loved, let alone the threat to his business, MacMillan and the team at Cowan immediately stepped up and subsequently overcame overwhelming odds.

They are really humble about it too, but that’s nothing new. As noted above, you know their products, but you may not know their name. Now, you may be one of the health care workers that received a face shield. You may not know who made it, you are just grateful it is helping to save lives. For Cowan Graphics, that is all the thanks they need.

“It has been a long journey so far and its definitely not over,” MacMillan concludes. “We hope our products are helping to bring safety and security to a world that is rapidly changing. Things will not go back to the way they were. From supply chain management to producing products locally, from how we gather and be social, to how we support our healthcare system, everything is going to change.

“Cowan isn’t going to be the next ringer that puts their mark on the world. We are going to leave that to Bezos, Zuckerberg, Branson and Musk. What we can do is what we have always done – supply the products that inform, educate, direct, and in a small way, help save lives. Nothing makes us prouder than to supply personal protection products from right here in Alberta.”

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