Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Hey, we still make chopsticks...
By Donn Fresard, Matthew Mallon, and Justin Rohrlich
For most of the last century, the United States dominated global manufacturing -- no country could compete with America's output.
In recent years, however, the news about domestic manufacturing has been discouraging, if not devastating. Industry surveys have shown a decline in most sectors as the US continues to lose its factories to cheaper labor markets overseas, and especially to China.
In 2010, the last remaining American flatware factory shut its doors. So did the nation's last sardine cannery. Recent years have seen the shuttering of America's last coat hanger factory, last button down shirt factory, and the entire sheetrock-producing town of Empire, Nevada -- which fell victim to the desiccated US housing market.
Surprisingly, however, there remains a handful of heroic holdouts. Bloodied, battered, but not yet down for the count, there are still pockets of US manufacturing scrappy enough to keep the lights on in the face of overseas competition. Here's a look at 10 survivors worth celebrating.
Modern bowling took off in the 1950s, kicked into a boom by the invention of the fully automatic pin-setter. By the mid-60s, there were around 12,000 bowling alleys across the U.S., mostly in working-class urban centers. But that was the industry’s peak. Dogged by that blue-collar image, and dependent for much of their income on dwindling league play (see Robert D. Putnam’s classic treatise Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community for the wider ramifications of this), bowling collapsed in the 1970s and '80s. By the late '90s there were less than 7,000 “bowling centers,” (as the biz likes to call them now) in the country, and the decline has continued despite attempts to move the sport upmarket. Current estimates put the number of centers at less than 5,800.
Still, though league play continues to disappear and centers dwindle, there's some good news. The industry has managed to refocus itself as a family-recreation and special-event past-time, and seen the median incomes of bowlers increase. And while big players like Brunswick Corp. have moved most of their bowling equipment manufacturing overseas, plucky Ebonite International, located in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is keeping it local. Along with its own Ebonite brand of balls and equipment, the company sells under several different names, including Hammer and, since a successful 2007 expansion, the Columbia 300, Track and Dynothane brands.
Few products say summer in America like the sparkler. But without Diamond Sparkler of Youngstown, Ohio, it would be a cold winter for domestic sparkler production. Diamond has been in Youngstown since 1985, when Phantom Fireworks operator B.J. Alan bought Chicago's Acme sparkler manufacturer and brought its operations to Ohio. At that point, cheaper Chinese sparklers had snuffed out all but three US producers. By 1999, Diamond would be the lone holdout that hadn't shifted to imports. Not because it found a way to profits, however. Besides a brief tariff-related windfall, Diamond Sparkler never been a moneymaker for its parent firm, whose owner said he bought the division because he couldn't “envision something as American as sparklers, with its association with the (Fourth) of July, not being made in this country.”
Youngstown, a onetime steel center whose population has dropped to barely 40 percent of its peak as that industry melted away, can claim only 20 year-round jobs at Diamond's factory. (Another 40 are hired for the peak season.) But city leaders are grateful, saying those jobs provide a much-needed light in a corner of America where business has mostly gone dark. “Phantom Fireworks is a small big business to us,” Thomas Humphries, local Chamber of Commerce chief, told American Way magazine. “They always seem to find a way to hold on to a great core of people.”
Sometimes globalization brings an ironic twist that actually helps American manufacturers. In the case of chopsticks, it was a double-dose of irony that made Americus, Georgia, a center of wooden utensil production for China. The huge, fast-growing powerhouse, which seems to export the bulk of Americans' everyday consumer products, produces most of the world's chopsticks, about 63 billion pairs annually. It's a simple product that serves a huge market -- a third of the world's population uses the sticks to pluck morsels from their dishes. When China's several hundred manufacturers started running short of wood, though -- remember, that country is building furiously, and it's not heavily forested to begin with -- an opportunity arose for a US company to turn the international-trade tables. Enter Jae Lee, the Korean-born American who in November 2010 founded Georgia Chopsticks to take advantage of China's shortfall and rural Georgia's abundance of wood.
Before long, Americus (fitting name, isn't it?) was processing a few million pairs of chopsticks daily, slapping Made in the USA labels on them, and exporting China's favorite utensil to Chinese. Lee is ramping up production as fast as he can order machinery, and intends to churn out 10 million a day by year's end. At full capacity, the company plans to have around 150 hires. Not bad for a town with a 12% unemployment rate, in a country supposedly burdened by sky-high labor costs.
The irony isn't lost on the workers. “Everywhere you see in America ‘Made in China,’" new hire Susan White told Voice of America, "and you wonder if, in China, they ever see ‘Made in America.’” They do now.
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