Depending on what you hear and whom you believe, American manufacturing either has begun a fundamental renaissance that will outlast the vicissitudes of geopolitics—or it is enjoying a last gasp before being finally laid low by trade wars, labor mismatches and a recession.
Numerous signals support each view. President Trump likes to declare how his America First policies—including corporate tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and new tariffs—led to the creation of a half-million manufacturing jobs over the previous two years. And more U.S.-based CEOs now are considering “reshoring” some factory work.
At the same time, Trump’s tariffs are hitting some U.S. manufacturers hard, even while the trade deficit continues to balloon. High-skill factory jobs go begging, as many millennials turn up their noses at the opportunities. The dire need for rapid digitization confounds many factory owners. And plant closings and layoffs in the auto sector could be a precursor of a broader manufacturing slowdown.
“The next five to 10 years will be pretty good for U.S. companies,” David Farr, CEO of Emerson Electric and member of the executive committee of the National Association of Manufacturers, told CEOs gathered for the Chief Executive Smart Manufacturing Summit in Dallas.
“U.S. manufacturers are globally very competitive right now, and there’s the chance to do more…. But there needs to be a resetting of global trade [and] that’s not easy to accomplish.”
Whatever the big picture, expect our 25 “Makers for American Manufacturing” to fare well. For the second consecutive year, Chief Executive has selected a handful of people who are really successful, whose companies represent robust trends in the U.S. manufacturing economy, or who are reshaping their industries or manufacturing as a whole.
Here are our Makers for American Manufacturing for 2019:
Scott Wine / CEO, Polaris Industries, Medina, MN
He was doing everything right for America, opening a new plant in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2016 to make snowmobiles, motorcycles and ATVs, and boosting company sales by 14 percent last year while doubling net income. But Wine’s company has gotten badly nicked by retaliatory tariffs in China and Europe that threatened to erase 25 percent of Polaris’s profits. He addressed the latest skirmish in the ongoing trade war, musing that Polaris might have to move some U.S. output and jobs to Mexico now.
Andi Owen / CEO, Herman Miller, Zeeland, MI
She’s not only the first woman to head one of the world’s premier office furniture makers but also someone whose experience lies entirely in the branding world, most of it with The Gap—not in manufacturing. She’s a digital maven whom the board hoped could bring Herman Miller into a new era.
“There’s not as much of a leap as one might think from one industry to the other,” Owen says. “But in the fashion industry, we made a lot of landfill. [Miller] is in an industry where we tend to make heirlooms and things that last. And while I spent my career in fashion trying to shorten supply chains and get as much control over them as possible, at Herman Miller we have a ton of control and suppliers right around the corner from us. It’s nice to have local production.”
Darrell Jobe / CEO, Vericool, Livermore, CA
Tom Bickes / CEO, EmployBridge, Santa Barbara, CA
During an unprecedented labor squeeze in manufacturing, these two owners have helped expand the national workforce—to great results. Jobe has relied largely on ex-cons to keep up with the company’s rapid growth, supplying earth-friendly food and pharma coolers, as home delivery has boomed. Bickes has built the largest industrial staffing provider in the United States, as he has helped close the skills gap for ordinary workers.
About one-third of his 45 employees are ex-prisoners, says Jobe, himself a former gang member who was plucked off the streets by a friend’s father and whisked into a career in packaging. “I always told myself that if I had an opportunity to start a company, I would hire individuals in need and help them re-establish,” he says. “If you give these people opportunity and hope, and value them as individuals, they’ll actually give you a much better return on your dollar than a standard employee who can get a job anywhere else.”
Bickes says EmployBridge has developed proprietary testing and screening tools so that its recruits fit well with each manufacturing client, fueling company growth up to three times the industry average over its 20 years in business. “This also has allowed us to open doors for individuals who maybe hadn’t thought about a manufacturing career before but had the skill sets to succeed,” he says.