Editor's note: Although the official Small Business Week has been postponed, we at Inc. feel it's always appropriate to recognize the teams and companies that serve the needs of their communities and help keep Main Street humming--and not just for one week!

In March, the four owners of AK Wet Works sat around a conference table brainstorming ways to save the business. In normal times the company, based in Seabrook, Texas, rents equipment to sandblast grime and old coatings off industrial tanks, pipelines, and other structures. But with the petrochemical, oil, and gas industries shutting down, its prospects looked bleak.

"One of us said, jokingly, 'What if we converted our equipment to blast disinfectant?'" co-founder Michael Bland says. "We laughed. Then we looked at each other and said, 'We might be able to do that.'"

 inline image

The pandemic is revealing to small businesses just how versatile they are. So: A home-decor company, a skirt designer, and a business that makes boots for horses all realize they can craft face masks. A manufacturer of pet supplements and a hot sauce company join myriad craft distilleries in production of hand sanitizers. 

The task of disinfecting workplaces tainted by or vulnerable to coronavirus also has attracted a variety of unexpected entrants. At AK Wet Works, the partners set out at once to reengineer their dustless blasters to produce a cold vapor fog that can sterilize 20,000 square feet an hour. In 100 hours, they produced a working model and began converting all 10 of their machines.

Seeking validation for their plan, the founders reached out to FQE, a local chemical company with an EPA-approved coronavirus disinfectant, to create a blend for them. Thinking their idea might have legs outside the Houston-area market, they next approached MMLJ, the original blaster manufacturer, which agreed to mass-produce the modified parts and market them to its large client base. MMLJ is paying a royalty to AK Wet Works, Bland says.

The owners also changed their business model. Instead of renting the equipment, they send out teams to do the disinfecting. (AK Wet Works has four full-time employees and a crew of part-timers to call on as needed.) The company has picked up more than 15 new clients, among them grocery stores, medical facilities, and police and fire departments. Small jobs are priced hourly; large ones by square footage, starting at 19¢ per square foot and dropping with volume.

Sales for the past three months are up 79 percent over last year, with 80 percent from disinfecting. Bland imagines the demand for disinfecting may extend beyond Covid-19. Both the converted sprayers and FQE's chemical solution work in hurricane remediation, for example.

"In the future," Bland says, "we will see where the revenue comes from and follow."

Getting the bugs out

An early TV news report about the impending pandemic struck a chord with Bruno Milanese. The president and owner of Bay Pest Control, a 75-employee business based in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, recalled seeing the word "coronavirus" on one of his chemicals. "I went back and looked and sure enough, products we'd been using for years already had coronavirus on the label," says Milanese, who acquired the 65-year-old business in 1995.

Milanese had begun buying the chemical--DSV, manufactured by a company called Nisus Corporation--years earlier when his food-processing customers asked if Bay Pest Control could disinfect their equipment at the same time it sprayed for bugs. 

"At first, we offered it to existing customers, saying if somebody tests positive we will do this for you at no charge," Milanese says. Soon word got around, and calls poured in. Milanese quickly ordered DSV in 55-gallon drums.

The company next developed processes to ensure 100 percent coverage of "anything that people touch or may have breathed or coughed or sneezed on," says Milanese. Every time Bay Pest Control takes on a new kind of space--from small businesses like hair salons and restaurants to large facilities like NASA's Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi--the team documents its specific requirements and creates specs for later teams to follow.

Milanese offers same-day service when someone at a business tests positive. Coronavirus disinfection now comprises about 15 percent of the business, with pricing comparable to pest control. "Doing something this essential has helped morale," Milanese says. "And I think it has helped the overall image of pest-control companies."

Before the trauma

In a pandemic, the grim work of crime scene and biohazard cleanup is in high demand. "The death scenes have definitely gone up," says Alan Cohen, founder and CEO of Bio SoCal, a 12-employee business based in Westlake Village, California. "Unfortunately, a lot more suicides are occurring. A lot more domestic violence. A lot of people live alone and pass away and nobody knows for weeks at a time."

Bio SoCal also cleans up sites exposed to infectious diseases, such as SARS and the C. difficile bacteria. Tackling Covid-19 was a natural extension of that practice, which is up significantly from its usual 15 percent of the business.

Even for a company whose core competency is decontamination, Covid-19 presents new challenges. For example, a crime scene or biohazard cleanup typically is relegated to a single room or, at most, a few rooms in an ordinary-size house. "No one before had the need to decontaminate and disinfect 300,000 or 400,000 square feet of a business," Cohen says.

For those jobs, Bio SoCal deploys staff in teams. The first team goes through a facility and wipes clean every surface to remove the "biofilm" of bacteria or other microorganisms. The second team applies disinfectant. For spaces where applying a wet solution is impractical--electronic-control and server rooms, for example--Cohen invested in a machine called HaloMist that distributes disinfectant in a dry fog.

The company has also changed its liability disclaimer. Cohen points out that while the EPA has approved Covid-19 chemicals to deactivate the broader category coronavirus, it has not had time to conduct definitive testing on the new disease.

The pandemic has affected Bio SoCal's other jobs as well. Now the company applies disinfectant for Covid-19 at every site--crime scenes included--before cleaning. "We don't know who has been in that house or in that building," Cohen says. "We don't know anything."