Dusseldorf A few employees of the fire department in Mülheim an der Ruhr gathered in front of the syringe house. The sun is shining, Chef Sven Werner and his department head for emergency services and disinfection, Andreas Johann, are wearing short-sleeved uniforms. A forklift and a red truck are already waiting in the yard. The onward transport should go as quickly as possible.
The men are waiting for a product that is currently in demand like hardly any other product in the world: respiratory masks. It is corona time and they are their currency: the masks are an important tool in the fight against the virus. And they are not easy to get. There are still supply shortages five months after the outbreak of the corona virus.
In Germany, too, face protection is increasingly becoming a mandatory item of clothing. All federal states introduce mandatory wearing. And the federal government has “strongly” recommended wearing masks when shopping or on buses and trains.
But the fire department in Mülheim has no masks. Marvin and Aaron Steinberg are supposed to solve the problem. The brothers, 32 and 35 years old, have just climbed out of their pickup truck, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. With your Sixt– Rental cars transport the sought-after face protection.
“20,000 go straight to one of our hospitals,” says fire chief Werner, while he examines documents and the forklift lifts the first boxes. “The remaining 30,000 remain here.” These are not masks that you can sew yourself. Most are those with filter protection.
The federal government has so far failed to meet the huge demand for masks. According to Minister of Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier (CDU), Germany needs a total of several billion pieces within a few months. The large German manufacturers such as the Lübeck-based company Dräger have been producing at their limit for a long time despite the expansion of production. And the global market, in which companies like the US group 3M dominate, is eaten empty by all affected nations like grasshoppers.
This is why makeshift production facilities are being set up all over the world, including in Germany. Whether on an entrepreneurial basis, such as recently at Trigema, the laundry manufacturer of the eccentric owner Wolfgang Grupp. Or at Daimler, where breathing masks are now produced for your own needs. Or citizens sew them at home.
All of these are commendable initiatives. But: The resulting products often offer only limited protection, for example when shopping in a supermarket. They are usually not suitable for medical personnel.
And so there is a gap that people like the Steinberg brothers encounter. Small business owners who are quick to grab, who have contacts with professional providers abroad – and who do it instead of looking at the federal government – and who naturally hope to make a profit.
“What we do is of course just a drop in the ocean,” says Marvin Steinberg. He wears glasses and his shirt says “Corona Crisis”. “But it is a drop that leads to happy faces in many places.”
Also in Mülheim. “We are very happy to have enough stock now,” says fire chief Werner. The mask market has been going crazy since Corona. And no one can say how the situation will develop. “If the infection situation remains as it is, we are well prepared,” says Werner. “But who knows that?”
15 cents profit per mask
Aaron, the trained nursing nurse, and Marvin, who runs a marketing GmbH, have been in business for four weeks. You have set up offices in Mainz and Koblenz. According to their own statements, they pick up between 50,000 and 200,000 masks three to four times a week at Frankfurt or Cologne airports.
The Steinbergs are founding a company. Her name: “Pflegeliebe GmbH”. The Steinbergs customer base is growing steadily. Clinics, pharmacies, old people’s homes, hairdressers and taxi services now order from them. Sometimes small amounts are also donated.
The demand is great. Hospitals sometimes run out of masks, and resident doctors are also concerned about whether they can still treat their patients. It is particularly important that the Steinbergs also offer FFP2 and FFP3 products.
They belong to the type of mask that protects the wearer. FFP2 and FFP3 masks are therefore the appropriate equipment for doctors or nurses who handle potentially infected people. These masks cannot be made at home. Nor do companies like Trigema manufacture them. Special companies are needed for this.
And that’s where the problem begins. There are also producers in Germany. In addition to corporations such as Dräger, medium-sized companies are now trying to gain a foothold in this field. The “Fight Covid-19” consortium, for example, which includes smaller companies such as the bikini company Maryan Beachwear or the mechanical engineering company Reifenhäuser, is currently building a network. Your production goal: half a million FFP2 masks per week.
However, the major mass producers among the specialist companies are primarily located in China. And the market remains chaotic. Even if production has started again in China, the purchase price continues to skyrocket. Before Corona, an FFP2 mask cost about 50 cents. Today, prices in the double-digit euro range are sometimes called up for this.
Of course, this also attracts fraudsters who try to sell unusable goods at a high price or only deliver material against prepayment – which then never reaches the customer. “A lot of providers are dubious,” says Marvin Steinberg. “Many of our customers have already fallen for fraudsters.”
The topic should be rather uncomfortable for the entrepreneur. Because Steinberg, who was also active in the field of gold-backed cryptocurrencies for a while, had once separated from an ex-partner in the dispute. Now there are anonymous articles online that accuse him of fraud. Even a criminal complaint is circulating.
So far, however, there is no convincing evidence. A civil law complaint by his ex-partner definitely failed before the Mainz Higher Regional Court. Steinberg has already had several entries in the network deleted by court. “It was a bad time for me,” he says. He was happy to be able to leave that behind.
And he does not hide the fact that he also wants to earn money by supplying masks. However, at reasonable prices. One-way surgical masks cost him an average of 99 cents per piece, depending on the quantity, FFP2 masks between four and 5.50 euros. “The same masks are then partially resold by the pharmacies at a price of 14.99 euros,” says Steinberg.
For comparison: Trigema charges 120 euros for ten of its “reusable makeshift mouth and nose masks”. Steinberg even discloses its margin. On average, he and his brother earned 15 cents per surgical mask, and 40 cents for FFP2 masks.
And why don’t they sell to the federal government? Health Minister Jens Spahn recently made three billion euros available for the procurement of protective clothing and introduced a so-called open house procedure.
This means that the state buys centrally and at fixed prices if a manufacturer can supply at least 25,000 masks or gowns and guarantee a minimum standard. Masks, gloves and gowns are to be distributed across the federal states and the medical associations.
But there is much criticism of this method. Spahn had reacted too late, the control did not work, the procedure was too complicated. A German businessman from Taiwan recently reported to the Handelsblatt, who wanted to broker the sale of several million FFP2 masks. And not to the USA, but to his home country. But he just couldn’t figure out who to contact.
Did the Steinbergs hear about the federal government’s trial, did he try it once? “No, we’ve just been doing it that way,” says Marvin Steinberg. But that with the federal government is not a bad idea. But he did not know whom to speak to. Does the Handelsblatt have any contact? An inquiry to the Ministry of Health remains unanswered.
Procurement seems so easy. He has contacts in China, says Marvin Steinberg. He has had a business relationship there for a long time with a mask manufacturer who produces himself and can also get goods from other manufacturers if necessary. He doesn’t want to give the name. After all, it was his competitive advantage. The manufacturer vouches for the quality of the masks, says Steinberg.
Because quality is probably the most important criterion in this business. An FFP2 mask that doesn’t protect against corona viruses is not worth a penny.
Many false copies on the way
But how is the goods checked? A few days before the appointment in Mülheim, the Steinbergs are sitting in a van on their way to Frankfurt Airport. Another car is driving. The Handelsblatt is activated via WhatsApp video.
While Marvin Steinberg explains the process, his vehicles drive to a ramp outside the airport, where around 20 boxes are already waiting for loading. Also on board is Mr. Wu, a young Chinese man who supports the brothers in the process. He has a small export-import business himself, says Marvin Steinberg.
Together with Aaron Steinberg, Wu opens one of the boxes to check the contents. 200,000 surgical masks have arrived today.
Of course, you can only see what the goods look like, says Steinberg. The contents are on the boxes, and on the packaging of the masks there is usually also the CE seal of approval. The boxes would also have to go through customs. Ultimately, it is only the end user who will determine whether the masks are really good. “We only have positive feedback from them,” he reports.
The main problem is getting good quality at reasonable prices. Andreas Johann (Mülheim fire department)
Steinberg offers customers to come to his office in Mainz before buying to inspect the goods with an expert. Only then does payment have to be made – for example by bank transfer.
At any rate, the fire brigade in Mülheim is completely satisfied. “The main problem is getting good quality at reasonable prices,” says department head Johann. He doesn’t just say that.
He previously tested the breathing masks in three ways. He cut them apart and checked their strength. 5 layers, that’s good. He lit a mask with the lighter to see if the material just contracts and doesn’t burn. And finally he poured water into a mask. Since nothing flows out, it is tight. “Passed the quality test,” says Johann.
Then he and his boss Werner can thank you for a gift from Steinberg, staged effectively for the press appointment: 2500 surgical masks are available for free.
Yes, Marvin Steinberg also knows how to advertise for yourself, how to stage yourself. But who could blame him in these strange, difficult times – when breathing masks could become the product of the year, if not the decade?
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