Pre-COVID, Teddy Haggerty, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, had already built a strong foundation for his Plainview-based industrial safety supplies distributor.
Since 2018, Defender Safety had been servicing the construction industry with everything from hard hats to harnesses and had been in growth mode since inking a deal with a major national safety equipment distributor in 2019.
But with the mandated shutdown last March, construction work suddenly came to a halt.
"All job sites were shut down" — and so was that revenue stream, said Haggerty, who grew up in Syosset and now lives in Oyster Bay.
But because of the global nature of his business, he had early awareness about the growing need for personal protective equipment. He said he started getting queries about health-care PPE, like masks and gloves, from people worldwide around the end of 2019.
"We weren’t doing healthcare PPE at the time," said Haggerty, who saw the opportunity to pivot.
Subsequently, he reached out to the company's hard hat manufacturer in China, which was also in the health care/PPE business, as an initial supplier.
But after some back and forth, Haggerty decided Defender Safety, which has six employees and has not had to do layoffs, could get better PPE-quality products by switching to a different medical device manufacturer in China.
Defender Safety's first major customer was a large hospital group in Massachusetts, and his company's customer base has grown from there, Haggerty said. Since January 2020, the firm has distributed over 50 million pieces of PPE worldwide, including masks, gloves and disinfectants. Customers include the Suffolk County Office of Emergency Management and the fire departments of Port Washington, Levittown and Mineola.
Newsday spoke to Haggerty about the pivot. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
When did you start seeing demand for PPE items?
End of December  is probably when we first started seeing it. We were getting inquiries from China and Germany.
Why do you think they approached you?
People were looking at our website. Our business is safety. They were already asking for N-95 masks, and I was originally sourcing them from 3-M and other companies that I could get my hands on. Then we started to look at how we could manufacture health care-related supplies. We looked at the biggest manufacturers and asked ourselves how could we make similar quality products.
Your products are made to your specifications in China. Was it hard getting product out at the height of the pandemic?
It was challenging. China was shut down. Our facility was shipping us through regular DHL. It was expensive.
Besides hospitals, what other customers do you have?
We supply to a bunch of distributors including our previous construction distributors and smaller medical supply companies. We were also approved by Amazon in the summer as a COVID supplier.
So you sell to consumers also?
Yes. We use Amazon as a big distribution network. Our goal is to make more consumer-friendly products. We’re currently making a comfortable mask with the same medical grade protection as those supplied to healthcare providers. [The company is launching a new disposable mask line this month on Amazon that will retail for $14.95 for a five-pack.]
Are you still servicing the construction industry?
Yes. In 2020, we had just under $20 million in revenue with 90% from healthcare PPE. Now we’ve crept up to about 40% of revenue coming from construction safety products.
What are the pros and cons of being a young entrepreneur?
I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 16. My first business did real estate marketing and drone photography. It’s hard to build respect and a reputation when you're young, especially when you’re building a life-saving product. You have to prove your product and prove you’re up for the challenge. As a positive, I have a ton of energy, and I’m able to stay up until 5 a.m. talking to people overseas.
Plans for the future?
We’re implementing a new website to try to create education around PPE and disease control. We hope to surpass 2020 revenues. … We have a lot of new products being developed. We’re growing, and in July we moved into a larger 22,000-square-foot facility.
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