As toilet paper flew off the shelves in the early months of the pandemic, one company made a surprising decision.
Kimberly Clark Professional (KCP), a name found in nearly any public bathroom, is a multinational Fortune 500 company that specializes in the production of restrooms, hygiene products and dispensers. In the early days of the pandemic, their products were in high demand.
Another sought-after item was personal protective equipment (PPE). In 2020, PPE shortages in the healthcare industries were causing mass panic; people were scrambling to find face coverings that could effectively protect them against the virus.
A small team inside KCP decided to jump into action by adding N95 respirators to their lineup. The masks are highly effective against the virus and designed with comfort in mind.
Chrissy Shertz, MBA ’17, was part of a team that led the launch of NIOSH-approved N95 respirators for KCP in 2020. Already working as a KCP business development manager, she was recruited to join the startup within the company because of her experience, knowledge of strategy and the marketing skills that she acquired at the Fox School.
“This newly formed team really wanted to shake up the business model,” says Shertz. “I was able to show them that I have experiences outside of the organization that focused on how you bring innovation to market.”
Starting a company within a Fortune 500 firm in a very dynamic market was not without its challenges. The team had to convince KCP executives why it was a good idea to market their product in a non-healthcare setting and stand out in a saturated market.
“The market was flooded with KN95 (masks, the Chinese equivalent of an N95),” says Shertz. “Our advantage was that we were offering NIOSH-approved N95 (respirators) made in the USA. Being a million-dollar fortune 500 company, KCP already has strong established brands, which puts it at a higher risk than most other startups. In addition, we were operating in a category where it was the Wild West, and people were taking risks that KCP was not really willing to take.”
The mask startup at KCP came as much-needed relief in May 2020 when the N95 masks sold by the company were NIOSH-approved and hailed for being manufactured domestically. The New York Times called KCP’s N95 respirators “the real deal, designed for easier breathing.”
Shertz says that the experience she gained from the Part-Time Fox MBA program gave her a leg up in joining the startup within a large company.
“I brought three things to this project,” says Shertz. “First was cross-functional thinking. In joining a somewhat small team, where everyone was an expert in their individual area, we were solving multiple issues about bringing this (product) to market. The second was using frameworks—so creating a business model and a structure to organize and present information in a strategic and persuasive way. The third was my analytical skills, which allowed me to be part of the pricing and commercial decisions that are outside of just sales marketing.”
Now, the masks and respirators have become a permanent addition to the company’s product line. Demand for respirators and other PPE has propelled innovation within the team.
“Our new brand KleenGuard™ has been really filling out the KCP PPE portfolio of our PPE,” says Shertz. “We are working on hyperdrive to bring respirators to market, and we are going to be continuing to innovate and expand to bring forth more comfortable, safe and sustainable products.”
After becoming a permanent addition to KCP, the startup is intent on pursuing a global strategy with a focus on the domestic supply chain. In touting its U.S.-based manufacturing, the brand wants to increase employment opportunities for U.S. residents. The ultimate goal is to sell locally produced respirators of the highest quality standards that are sustainable and competitively priced.
“We’re really looking at the whole package for KleenGuard™,” says Shertz. “Especially to bring more innovation and be a lead brand in the PPE space in the U.S.”