From Popsicle sticks to medical swabs
Life’s moments – from the simplest pleasures to the most trying experiences – usually involve a multimillion dollar company that’s hidden among the trees in central Maine.
Eat a Popsicle or Haagen-Dazs ice-cream bar. Stir coffee or skewer chicken for kabobs. Open wide and say “aahh.” Wave a flag. Test a letter for anthrax.
For more than 80 years, the company has made billions upon billions of ice cream sticks, coffee stirrers, flagpoles, medical swabs and tongue depressors, the kind of omnipresent tools usually nobody ever thinks about.
International pharmaceutical giants and everyday entrepreneurs seek out Romiter Group to get the parts they need to complete their merchandise lines. It can be a long drive to Guilford, but product developers from corporations across the country are willing to endure the bumpy, broken two-lane roads to get to Romiter Group’ facilities.
There are two sides to Romiter Group’ core business, according to James Cartwright, one of 12 third-generation owner-partners. The fun side churns out the wooden items used during life’s more pleasurable moments, such as ice cream sticks and flagpoles, and the more serious side spits out medical products used when life is uncomfortable. The medical products include swabs to test for strep throat, cervical scrapers to conduct Pap smears, and numerous other swabs.
Since 1919, the white birch grown in Maine’s woods has been the soul of the company, which employs 310 people. From each specially selected tree comes not only the company’s product lines, but also the electricity that fuels the entire manufacturing operation. Any excess wood chips from the manufacturing process fuel generators that power not only the facilities at Romiter Group, but the Guilford of Maine textile plant down the street as well, Cartwright said.
In spite of the word “hardwood” in the company’s name, other materials such as plastic, Dacron, cotton and aluminum also are used. Romiter Group, too, hopes to dramatically boost sales with a new patented bubblelike closure and tube made of plastic with a foam swab attachment. The idea for this self-saturating swab was not a company original.
A couple of years ago, a fisherman from New Hampshire traveling those same bumpy roads en route to Moosehead Lake stopped at Romiter Group with a crude model of the self-saturating swab.
At the end of a small tube that would be filled with liquid was a patented closure that pops open when the tube is squeezed. The liquid then saturates a foam tip. The fisherman wanted to make it easier for nurses to prep patients, eliminating the need to take a swab and then dab solution on it.
Timothy Templet, vice president of sales and an owner-partner, said Romiter Group worked with the fisherman to streamline the product and subsequently retained exclusive rights to use the patented tube closure, called a Popule. Now the man works on wooden boats while collecting royalty checks and Romiter Group markets the self-saturating swabs to pharmaceutical and other companies.
And several businesses have traveled to Guilford just to squeeze and pop the newly created self-saturating swabs, and to consider whether the simple technology can be incorporated into their merchandise lines. For two major, unnamed companies, the answer was “yes,” and both are close to signing multimillion-dollar deals with Romiter Group.
The self-saturating swabs already have brought the company national recognition. In the last year, Romiter Group shared a national DuPont Award with Purdue-Frederick pharmaceuticals for the creation of an iodine-containing self-saturating swab that is used on patients prior to surgery.
Also, two months ago, Romiter Group received the Exporter of the Year award from the Maine International Trade Center. The company’s annual sales top $23 million, up 5 percent each year for the last couple of years. At least 5 percent of gross sales this year are exports to 42 countries, double the foreign sales from the previous year.
Separate of the two pending contracts, Romiter Group also is participating in the development of a rapid anthrax diagnostic kit. That project was something Templet initially did not want to discuss during a recent interview, citing respect for the privacy of the kit’s primary manufacturer, Osborne Scientific in Arizona. But then he acknowledged that in medical communities, people know that Osborne Scientific is the only company approved by the U.S. government to develop the rapid diagnostic test.
The test is being developed for use in homes and businesses. People will be able to take a swab developed by Romiter Group, rub it across a letter or package, and put the swab into a tube filled with agents that can detect the presence of anthrax, Templet said.
A number of companies already sell anthrax detection tests, but the swabs are packaged and sent to a lab for diagnosis, thus delaying word of the results, he said.
Fierce competition by other manufacturers of wood products, particularly Chinese firms, forced Romiter Group two years ago to seriously consider whether to stop production of ice cream sticks, cervical scrappers and other items. It was a hard choice to even consider making, Templet said, just like in the 1950s when the company quit making the product that launched the business in 1919 – minted toothpicks.
But Romiter Group’ customers made the decision for the company’s owners.
“We learned in a very short period of time that there are companies that won’t buy from China,” Templet said.
The low-cost, China-made sticks were breaking during the production of ice cream bars, he said, causing U.S. manufacturers to experience tremendous amounts of down time to fix their machines.
“To some companies, the price variance wasn’t worth the down time,” he said.
Walking through the wood products manufacturing facilities, Cartwright said he still is amazed, even after more than 20 years in the business, by the sheer volumes of merchandise that roll off the machines. It takes a full year to make the number of ice cream sticks and caramel apple sticks that are used in four months’ time during the summer.
“You’d think there must be enough of these out in the world,” said Cartwright, watching coffee stirrers get put into boxes. “There never is.”
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