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Focusing on prevention of infection

TAGS: Leadership
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Interview with James Michael Lafferty, CEO, Fine Hygienic Holding

COVID-19 exposed how complacent we all were about germs because we seemed to be winning the battle – we had new drugs, treatments. So, when the Coronavirus came around, we didn’t have anything to protect us from it since we didn’t understand it and didn’t know what to do.

One company that early on realised the importance of offering virus killing masks to the general population was Fine Hygienic Holding (FHH). The company operates in the world of hygiene, disinfection and wellness. “The prevention of infection, that’s what we focus on,” shared James Michael Lafferty, CEO, Fine Hygienic Holding, in an interview with Omnia Health Magazine.

While Fine is synonymous with tissue products, the company made its foray into the mask market in February 2020 with the Fine Guard Mask, which has become the reusable mask of choice in the market.

“We sterilise our tissues to UV light,” said Lafferty. “It is sterile when it leaves the factory and when the box is opened at home, they’re more sterile than another tissue. But gradually, germs can settle on the tissue and it doesn’t stay sterilised. We had been thinking about ways to address that challenge.”

In this regard, a technology from Switzerland came to FHH’s attention. It was basically a chemical that can be applied to a tissue or textile. It not only kills the germs but keeps killing them for a year. He stressed: “Imagine the tissue in your house; you’re sick with a cold, but, of course, don’t want your family to get sick. You blow your nose, and the tissue kills the virus. So, if someone else touches the tissue, or picks it up off the floor, they don’t get sick. We had been working on this for two years but couldn’t get it to work on paper since its very delicate. But we knew that it worked on textiles.”

Lafferty shared that he has a background in physiology and a keen interest in microbiology. So, when in January 2020 the first news stories about the Coronavirus were coming out, his interest was piqued, and he reached out to a virologist friend and asked him a few questions. His friend told him that this virus “loves the human respiratory tract, so if it has killed 80,000 people, it’s going to kill a lot more and is going to go global, and that it is an airborne virus.

He said: “My friend said that the number one thing you can do is wash your hands. Also, you have to cover your nose and mouth with a mask. That’s when I thought, we know how to make masks and we know how to spray this technology onto textiles. So, we can’t do it on a paper mask, but on a reusable mask and we can be good for the planet!

“Eight days later, we launched the Fine Guard Mask line to market. It’s the fastest record in the history of the fast-moving consumer goods business to launch a product in such a short span of time. In my 35-year career, this is probably my number one most fun and rewarding story because every mask we sold was ultimately saving human lives.”

Prior to this kind of technology, the way people looked at masks was based on filtration and whether it was an N95 or not. N95 refers to 95 per cent filtration of any particle down to a size of point three microns. Point three microns is pretty small, but that would cover dust, pollution, most bacteria, pollen and most spores of moulds and fungi. But it doesn’t cover viruses because those are smaller than point three. For example, the Coronavirus has a measurement of point one to five diameter, which is one third the size of the filtration. Therefore, a virus like a Coronavirus goes right through an N95.

Lafferty explained: “All of the world’s technology to measure masks was based on filtration, so it was a point of concern for the Coronavirus. This whole idea of a textile that kills a germ is brand new and so most governments had never even confronted this. I would get letters on social media with people saying, “you’re lying, how can a fabric kill germs?” There is not a lot of understanding about the technology and how it works. But it certainly does. It was tested and validated in leading laboratories such as the University of Arizona’s department of microbiology.

“I think I’m a fairly healthy person, but I can safely say that once every year I did get sick with a cold. But here we are in the middle of a pandemic and this is the first year of my life that I haven’t been sick! I think part of it is those masks, as they don’t only protect from Coronavirus, but also the common cold.”

Committed to saving lives

When asked about how FHH responded to the COVID-19 crisis internally, Lafferty highlighted: “I’m very proud of how we responded to the pandemic because it’s in times of adversity that you measure the character of a person or an organisation. I think we really showed the character of the company. The first thing was how we responded to our own organisation. We were very clear about not cutting salaries. We not only didn’t cut pay, but we gave raises and bonuses, as people worked extra hours. We provided employees with 24/7 counselling and other programmes to help them cope with the challenges of the pandemic.”

Externally, he said, FHH expanded its profile from being a wellness company in the hygiene sector to being a wellness company in the disinfection sector and made a commitment to saving lives. “We launched masks and gloves and a whole new range of long-lasting disinfecting products, which save lives. We have sold several million masks. But I don’t think about it as selling these many masks, but about potentially saving two or three million lives, thanks to the revolutionary antiviral technology we use in our products,” he added.

Furthermore, he said that countries were able to evaluate and change the regulations and change the importation laws on protective masks, to varying degrees of speed. “It took us quite a while to launch in Egypt because the regulatory requirements vary from country to country, and this is a new technology. The UAE was very quick, as were some of the European markets. But still, governments around the world take time to accept the change of a virus killing mask.”

Recently, FHH also introduced the Fine Guard Pure Hands 24-hour hand sanitiser that only needs to be put on once a day. The company also launched Pure Surfaces, which lasts for 21 days. “So, you can disinfect your table or your doorknobs once every three weeks,” he said. “These products are also completely protected and have been validated in independent research.”

He concluded: “In the coming years, I think more and more people are probably going to be germophobes due to what they have witnessed during the pandemic. This will create a ripple effect on two segments. Segment one will be disinfection and killing germs. Also, hand sanitisers will be a part of the fabric of our society. The second segment is the immune system function, which is what are the foods and supplements that can improve immunity so that if someone does catch a virus, they can ensure that they can beat it.

“These are the two areas that we see in wellness that are going to be big and permanently elevated in terms of market demand. And those are two areas that we as a company are going to be focusing on.”

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Lafferty was instrumental in starting Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) business in the Levant region in 1998 when the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA) agreement was signed, and markets such as Syria and Jordan opened up to the world.

He shared: “I was the first general manager of P&G in that business and opened up the Jordanian, Palestinian, and Syrian business as well as managed part of the business in Israel and Lebanon. I left in 2000 and moved on to another assignment within P&G in Poland. I loved the Levant region and always wanted to get back. In 2015, I got the opportunity to join FHH. Eventually, the board asked if I would like to step in as CEO and I agreed to that in 2018.”

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