From planes to masks: best friends take off on a new venture

Text description provided by the Neos Kosmos.

In the midst of the pandemic, Greek-Australian pilot, Paul Vourtsis, and his best friend, Frank Tsokas, responded to the needs of the country and set up AusMed Health, a company producing high quality surgical masks for the community and businesses across Australia

Greek Australian pilot Paul Vourtsis got his license to fly a plane before he could drive a car.

From the age of 15, when he took off on his maiden flight at Moorabin Airport, he fell in love with aviation, and could see himself at the cockpit of a plane for the rest of his life.

No one could have anticipated that 30 years later, planes would be grounded around the world, and pilots along with their crews would be stuck at home indefinitely.

The Virgin Airlines captain told Neos Kosmos how, after being grounded for days when lockdowns were enforced and borders closed in Australia, he started to look for ways forward, coming up with a business idea, that he and his koumbaro Frank Tsokas developed and implemented within months.

Today, he spends a few days a week flying within Australia. And the rest of the time he is focused on AusMed Health, a company producing superior quality surgical masks for organisations, businesses and retailers in Victoria and across Australia.

“In March last year, we saw everything stop,” Mr Vourtsis said.

“Pilots don’t have many transferrable skills,” he said, describing how he struggled to imagine what he could do if he couldn’t fly anymore.
One day, during the start of the pandemic, he remembers that he was in a pharmacy in Richmond to buy masks.

“I’m looking at these boxes with masks, and everywhere I went, I noticed that they were all made in China, and they were very expensive too, at the time.”

They started digging into it with his koumbaro and best friend of 25 years, Frank Tsokas, and discovered, that at the time, there was only one company in Shepparton producing surgical masks in Australia. Masks were in desperate need, and he recalls how the military was deployed to help the Shepparton company update their machinery so that they could produce more for the needs of the country.

Today, Mr Vourtsis spends a few days a week flying within Australia. The rest of the time he is focused on AusMed Health, a company producing superior quality surgical masks for organisations, businesses and retailers in Victoria and across Australia. Photo: Supplied

 

An epiphany moment

“That was a light bulb moment for me! ‘Why don’t we do it?’ I said. ‘It can’t be that hard!'” Mr Vourtsis said.

His partner, Mr Tsokas, who hails from Finikounda, had 25 years of experience in manufacturing and automated machinery under his belt, while Mr Vourtsis, being a pilot, had good knowledge of operating machinery and following procedures where high standards of safety is a huge issue.

“There was no PPE manufacturing sector in Australia then, and it left citizens here in Australia out in the cold. We thought, this is not right. It was critical that manufacturing of masks and PPE gear be produced in Australia,” Mr Tsokas told Neos Kosmos.

At around that time, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a call asking for Australian manufacturing of these products, as the country was left without face masks when the pandemic hit.

“And we think we answered that call,” they said.

By November they were in full production, and AusMed Health was making 25,000 masks a day in their facility in Melbourne.

At around the same time, a few more Melbourne companies started off, along with a couple interstate.

The Greek Australian business partners donated surgical masks of AusMed Health to the Greek aged care centre “Frontida”. Photo: Supplied

 

Competition with China

The two friends and business partners believe that together, they are all in a position to produce the capacity required to service Australia.

But it hasn’t been an easy ride.

“It’s been a slow road because the main problem with Australian manufacturing is that we have to compete with Chinese import,” Mr Vourtsis explained.

“We like to believe that the quality of the Australian facemasks is by far superior. In Australia, you can’t cut corners, there are high standards of hygiene which need to be adhered to whereas imported products – once they pass the testing processes – may take short cuts, Mr Tsokas said, adding that there have already been hundreds of imported facemasks from China deregistered by the TGA, during post-market evaluations, Later, the same companies start up again under a different name, selling their products at prices so cheap that no one can compete.

However, the two Greek Australians feel that they are doing something good and worthwhile for the community but also for the national economy.

Paul Vourtsis and Frank Tsokas.

 

“In Australia we know that the person working at the machinery is working for a decent wage: he is going to get his lunch breaks, he will get looked after by his union. Manufacturing provides jobs in a critical industry and a whole chain of businesses are involved in a local production,” Mr Vourtsis said, pointing to the rewards his business venture has offered him.

“When I sell 25,000 masks to fill a quarter of the MCG, it feels good. I still love flying, I will always love flying, and I am still flying. But it feels like I have accomplished something else as well.”

Despite being a professional pilot, Mr Vourtsis, who hails from Zakynthos and Kalamata, had experience with business while growing up. He said he helped out for many years in his parents’ bakaliko in Prahran Market, Food House Deli.

“I spent all my holidays in the shop. I had to. That’s where I learnt that the customer is always right. Whatever the customer wants you have to give. And you won’t get rich from selling one or two items at a high price. We won’t charge much, we are here for the long term. We are doing our best, making every customer happy so they want to come back,” he said.