April 2020 -- As the country ramps up production of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to combat COVID-19, Minnesota heavyweights like 3M, Ecolab and Medtronic are making headlines everywhere. However, as Chris Bonvino can attest, it’s not just our Fortune 500 companies that can have a meaningful impact.
Bonvino is founder and president of Gemini Athletic Wear, Inc. Located in the Braemar Hills Neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the city’s border with Eden Prairie, Gemini is a quintessential “Edina” company. Bonvino is an alum of Edina High School, and a member of the Hornets hockey roster that brought home the state championship title in 1984.
He went on to play collegiate-level hockey for the University of North Dakota and University of Minnesota – while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism and flirting with a career in law. At age 24, however, Bonvino shifted his attention to a less conventional and far more risky venture.
The entrepreneur launched Gemini Athletic Wear from his apartment in 1991, in hopes of carving a new niche for himself in the sports industry he so loves. Its mission is to customize and manufacture athletic jerseys and team apparel – for high school teams, NHL franchises and every league in between.
“Most people thought I was quite foolish to embark upon a business I knew nothing about, and with no formal business training,” he recalled.
Nevertheless, he felt confident that a customer-service approach – coupled with strategic investments in the machinery needed to pull off hard-to-find customizations – would ensure him repeat business.
As the company inches towards its 30-year anniversary, Bonvino can take pride in his gamble. Gemini’s products are now worn across the country and at all levels of play: from the NCAA teams of Harvard University and Dartmouth College, to the Anaheim Ducks youth program in California. Edina High School has tapped the local company for its own jersey needs every season since 1997.
“I was raised to believe in helping people, and to give back to the community which has given so much to me,” Bonvino shared. Over the years, he has found many ways to do so. He regularly donates custom jerseys and other merchandise to worthy causes, such as the Jack Jablonski BEL13VE in Miracles Foundation.
Most recently, and most ambitiously, Gemini Athletic Wear has pivoted its attention to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As social distancing measures put a moratorium on all sporting events, Bonvino began experimenting with ways to redeploy his machinery to produce desperately needed PPE.
“It was a challenge that I felt we were equipped to take on,” Bonvino said. They did so with gusto, in spite of supply line shortages and other logistical hurdles.
“Without a single client, my company was able to source $10,000 worth of a specific thread-count cotton fabric, and learned how to make the CDC- specified breathing mask design.”
In one month alone, Gemini’s small but dedicated workforce has managed to produce 60,000 medical-grade masks. Bonvino sold them at cost to various healthcare providers.
Not content to rest there, Bonvino also partnered with a nurse on the design of a medical grade gown – another item in short supply at many hospitals. Using that prototype, Bonvino and a Gemini colleague layered and cut 500 gowns in one go. Other employees volunteered to complete the sewing on each from their own homes.
In this way, the team has so far distributed 1,000 gowns to senior living facilities in the west metro. Providentially, the same day that Gemini’s very first shipment arrived, the receiving facility confirmed its first COVID-19 case – a testament to the pressing need. “The timing of these congruent events was a little too surreal,” Bovino said.
While he – like everyone – hopes the current health crisis and supply shortages ebb soon, Bovino is grateful to be in a position where he can provide such a crucial service.