How Neo PPE is saving lives
Deb Neo never wanted to be a business owner. She just wanted to help people.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the licensed social worker was deeply disturbed by price gouging and unethical practices she witnessed in the personal protective equipment (PPE) industry.
“This time last year, I was seeing reports of 700 percent price-gouging, fake masks and respirators flooding the market,” says Neo, adding that surgical mask prices jumped from roughly 70 cents to as high as $7. “People were really taking advantage of the fact that they had this product and people needed it, and that’s the opposite of what I wanted to do.”
Her familiarity with the PPE industry comes from watching her father run a successful cleanroom supply business in Asia, where he has manufactured wipes, gloves, masks and other products for over 20 years.
“I’m not a very business-minded person, but when I started hearing that I have direct access to the product and that I can offer it at an ethical price, I told my dad to send over two boxes,” says Neo, 25.
A year later, she made $10 million in sales.
Neo PPE, based in Westerville, began in Neo’s home with 960 masks shipped from her dad’s company.
Products include lab-tested N95 and three-ply surgical masks, and clients range from restaurants to medical facilities, teachers, military, law enforcement, retailers and more.
Since she has direct contact with her manufacturer, cutting down on middle-man costs, she keeps prices fair and has control over standards, something Neo says was greatly missing in the industry.
In March 2020, the U.S. government designated N95 respirators as “scarce materials” due to overwhelming need in healthcare.
“I never really considered myself an entrepreneur, I was always social work-minded,” says Neo. “I just wanted to help people through this horrible time and do what I could to keep them safe.”
Early on, Neo’s friends and family helped get word out. Clients included small dental practices and health care agencies. “Hospitals and institutions that have a lot of buying power were able to snatch all of the respirators available, and people who were left behind were some small businesses that still needed to protect their employees,” she says,
Then Neo landed a contract with the state of California, where she sent three million masks.
“I started out packing up the two cases in my house, running to the post office and sending them to whoever my mom told me, like small dental practices,” she says. “And then suddenly I was running containers from Hong Kong straight to California.” One container holds 130,000 masks.
Other local business owners took notice and began working with Neo, including Patrick Tomsen, president and co-owner of Identity Group, a custom apparel and promotional products company, which now also sells masks.
When Tomsen, who shares office space with Neo, learned about what she was doing, he was eager to help. “I can’t tell you how many of her masks and her father’s masks we’ve placed,” he says. “You can hear people almost crying on the phone saying, Thank goodness you can help.”
“What Debbie has done is really remarkable,” says Tomsen. “She brought consistency, control, and oversight to the space when it was desperately needed. She’s one to watch.”
Born and raised in Singapore, Neo moved to Hartville, a small town in Stark County, when she was 11 years old. She attended Lake High School, describing her experience as “culture shock in the opposite way, moving from a big city to a small town.”
She moved with her mother, who had remarried, and her sister, to be with their stepfather. But she remained close with her father, visiting him in Hong Kong every summer until 2020. “I’ve talked with him on the phone two times a day since I was 11,” she says.
In 2014, she enrolled at Ohio State University, where she began studying English but was called to social work, and in 2018, she graduated in that field. She earned her master’s in social work in 2020, also from OSU.
“The pandemic has thrown everything up in the air, but it’s given me an opportunity to combine my social work and my knowledge of PPE, and I found a passion for the business through the fact that I knew this was helping people.”
Virginia Brown is a freelance writer.
670 Meridian Way, Ste. 165, Westerville 43081
Business: Personal protective equipment
Owner: Deb Neo
Revenue: $10 million (2020)