When Jeff Bollengier began CaliBowl, he manufactured the colorful curled lip plastic bowls in China, where labor is famously cheap.
But that was back in 2008; it’s 2011 now, and China is not so cheap.
“Times are changing,” said Bollengier, explaining that the company is shifting manufacturing to California this June. “We’re coming back.”
“China’s labor is creeping up,” said John Armaly Jr., president of Armaly Brands, which makes Brillo Pads in Ohio. “Their middle class wants what you and I want. They want more money, and the Chinese government is going to raise wages. There are manufacturers in this building today looking to bring their manufacturing back.”
Bollengier and Armaly are two of nearly 2,000 exhibitors at the International Home + Housewares Show at McCormick Place earlier this week. Knowing both the common wisdom - that nothing is made in the United States anymore, that we’ve become a nation of baristas and dog walkers - and also that U.S. manufacturing is struggling to rebound, I spent Monday talking to exhibitors at the show either returning production to this country, or who never left.
The reasons for optimism are many. The dollar is falling, making goods from abroad more expensive. The recession focused attention on job loss. “That’s a huge question coming through our booth the past three years - where’s it made?” said Bollengier. “Americans are willing to pay an extra $1 for something made here.”
Manufacturers were not only hawking their own home-produced products, but trolling for China’s business.
“Their prices have gone up, we’ve come down and closed the spread,” said Steve Roberts, president of Polar Plastech, an injection molding company in Florida. “Our approach is: ‘Hey, give us a chance, bring it home.’ We’ve had four or five serious inquiries just here at the show.”
Another key to China’s success has been cheap shipping; skyrocketing fuel costs have pushed that up as well.
Bob Etherton, vice president of Chicago Stool & Chair Co., explained that a 40-foot container that cost $3,000 to ship from China two years ago costs $4,500 to ship today.
“If a container holds 600 pieces, that’s a $2 a piece increase,” said Etherton. “On a $30 item, that’s a lot.”
Chicago Stool & Chair’s business model depends on a quirk of shipping - with bulky items, like chairs, the savings of assembly in China are lost by the extra cost of shipping it completed - and thus bigger - vs. flat. So Chinese furniture makers send disassembled chair pieces here to be put together at a factory in Elgin.
Catskill Craftsmen of Stamford, N.Y., sells hardwood kitchen islands that come in several big boxes, which would get separated traveling from China.
“We drop ship right from the factory,” said Ken Smith, Catskill CFO. “They can’t keep two or three boxes together. We focus on larger pieces that require multiple boxes, and that’s how we survive. It’s a niche.”
There is also the time factor.
“You can look at two months before you can get your goods from China,” said Jaysen Thorne, director of marketing for Fun-Time International, noting its customers get Krazy Straws from their factory in Mexico in two or three weeks.
Efficiency is another successful tactic.
“We’re the only ones doing a co-injection molding product in the states, in Tennessee,” said Jeff Goldberg, president of Clear Choice Housewares, which makes Farberware brand products. “Our manufacturers were able to do creative automation to knock the price down even cheaper than China’s.”
High-profile scandals related to contaminated Chinese goods made health concerns another selling point.
“We’re all-American because our products are mostly food-touch items,” said Lynn Everts, with a Texas twang, referring to his line of Evert-Fresh produce bags. “They’re used by our neighbors and children, and we want to know what’s in ‘em. I want to be able to look you in the eye and say, ‘Pard, these are safe for your babies.’ ”
Companies manufacturing in the United States are usually smaller, relatively new, and with dynamic owners.
“We gotta put America back to work,” Everts said. “We can’t do it with a service economy. I could make my products 60 percent cheaper in China, but I’m not interested.”
The future isn’t rosy - entire industries have been lost, millions of jobs are not coming back. The assumption remains that growth requires a move to China.
“We’re not so huge yet, where we need massive factories,” said Kristen Kleinsorge, marketing director at Clear Choice. “If we were a huge international company, who knows if we could maintain it?
But experts confirm good things are happening in U.S. factories.
“There really is a remarkable recovery going on in the manufacturing sector,” said Greg Ip, U.S. economics editor for The Economist and author of The Little Book of Economics. “This recovery is actually being led by exports and business investment.”
U.S. industry is trying to recover.
“It’s tough,” said Ken Bausch, a vice president at Oneida, the flatware company named for a town in New York whose product is now made mostly overseas. “We’d actually like to go back. ‘Made in America’ strikes a chord with people. If we could profitably make it in the United States, we would love to.”
Over at Utica, another old-line cutlery company, that day might be coming.
“We have more long-range plans,” said CEO David S. Allen. “The disparity is still pretty big. It used to be, if it cost $1 to make something here, they could do it for 10 cents. Now it’s 20 or 30 cents. Prices are going up pretty rapidly, but we have a ways to go.”
Allen, 50, said that when he started, 28 years ago, “70 percent of what we sold, we made in the United States. If we stayed with that model, I don’t think I’d be standing here talking to you.”
Now it’s 5 percent. Still, it’s becoming conceivable that Utica flatware might again be made in Utica.
“I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime,” Allen said. “But maybe I will.”
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