From award-winning winemaker to N95 mask supplier, Ron Bunnell took a circuitous route to his new business venture, The Mask Man.
Bunnell, co-owner of Prosser’s Wine O’Clock and The Bunnell Family Cellar, is using his contacts in China to meet the increasing demand for disposable masks, gloves, infrared thermometers and other personal protective equipment, or PPE.
“I have learned a great deal about PPE technology and importation,” said Bunnell, who started the small business this spring, offering personal delivery of PPE to the Tri-Cities and the lower Yakima Valley.
Bunnell’s link to China began back in 2016 when he connected with a Portland-based exporter who was part of his wine club. On his first of three trips to China, Bunnell’s wine won the grand prize at a trade show and he was able to make a number of new contacts during the multiweek visit.
“There seemed to be a lot of interest in getting different products to the U.S.,” Bunnell said.
Fast forward to 2020, when the demand for PPE began to ramp up with the outbreak of coronavirus, which leads to the deadly Covid-19.
Bunnell leaned on the contacts he’d made who knew how to get exports moving quickly.
This included one entrepreneur he described as having “an amazing talent for sourcing almost anything and seems to know a lot of people in the south of China in all areas of manufacturing.”
The Mask Man had its early ups and downs almost immediately.
Through a personal contact, Bunnell quickly received a large order valued at more than $20,000 for masks to supply employees at a mining company on the East Coast. Initially the masks were snarled up in customs.
“What originally was a pretty simple transaction turned into a real mess because the Chinese government started to pull back on their exports and the customs aspect of the transaction became very difficult,” Bunnell said. “We had some shipments tied up for days and weeks. The Chinese were circumspect about releasing too much of their goods, and the Chinese wanted to start preserving all of their medical grade supplies for themselves.”
Once Bunnell sorted out the customs challenge, there was a shipping bottleneck because fewer cargo planes were flying. Then, the national credit card processing company Bunnell had signed up with became suspicious of a new company registering large transactions and closed his account without explanation.
After finding another way to process payments and racking up sales to personal contacts on the West Coast, Bunnell found he still was striking out in breaking into PPE sales to the health care industry
“Because I’m not an existing supplier, they won’t return my calls. I may talk to a physician or even the head of surgery in a hospital, and they send me to the purchaser, and it’s a dead end,” he said.
Bunnell went back to focusing on the local market, especially through fellow members of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“I decided to ... create a more personal service, which is why I do deliveries, to make it convenient,” he said. He promoted his new business in a weekly email distributed to chamber members.
“I saw the email and called immediately,” said Vivian Terrell, owner of The Honey Baked Ham Company in Kennewick. “I was so excited to help another small business because we all know what it’s like to help each other stay above water.”
Terrell ordered multiple packs of N95 masks.
“They had become very difficult to find and those allow you to use the mask consistently while you continue to work, talk and breathe,” Terrell said.
She also knew her niece was in dire need of PPE at her work in the health care industry in another state, so she ordered protective gear from The Mask Man to send to her niece and her coworkers.
“Here in the Tri-Cities, we’re helping people in Memphis, Tennessee,” she said.
On Bunnell’s website, themaskman.net, Bunnell offers civil-grade N95 disposable masks, disposable masks in pink or blue for children, mask filters, plastic face shields, no-touch infrared thermometers and nitrile gloves.
Delivery to a Tri-City or lower Yakima Valley doorstep is free with a $50 purchase.
Bunnell said that because China makes 60% of the world’s PPE, it can control the market. This allowed the country to put limits on exports of medical-grade equipment, including N95s.
Prior to restrictions, The Mask Man had imported a number of disposable N95 masks intended for the health care industry which are now a top seller to local customers, like Terrell.
“I went from trying to sell to complicated, larger organizations to trying to supply PPE to smaller companies,” he said.
Bunnell also teamed up with a U.S. citizen who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is selling her handmade cloth fashion masks to benefit people in Africa on his website.
Bunnell still sells other consumer goods from Asia and Africa through his other company, Serendipity Imports LLC. This includes wine tools and winemaking equipment, consumer electronics and handmade jewelry.
Previously the winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle and Col Solare, Bunnell and his wife continue to operate The Bunnell Family Cellar and the Wine O’Clock brand through the Prosser wine bar and bistro.
Orders for PPE and other supplies can be placed at themaskman.net or by calling Bunnell at 509-948-2610.
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