Anthony Pratt now has been running the same or similar full-page advertisements in The Wall Street Journal every few weeks for at least a couple of years now. What is the Australian-born executive chairman of giant cardboard-box maker Pratt Industries trying to tell everyone?
“Export food, not jobs!” as many of the ads trumpet. Trump booster Pratt often features U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in his ads, posing with Pratt holding one of those same ads. Pratt’s ads typically say something like, “We wanted to start a national conversation on how to double American food production sales from $850 billion to $1.7 trillion” since the company began sponsoring a gathering called the Global Food Forum in 2016.
For Pratt, the benefits are obvious: Since its founding almost 30 years ago, the company has grown to become the fifth-largest corrugated paper box maker in the United States, with manufacturing facilities and more than 8,000 employees spread over 27 states. Food manufacturers are among the biggest customers for Pratt’s 100-percent-recycled, paper-based packaging.
Most recently, Pratt announced that it will build a new plant in Botetourt County, Virginia, which will create 50 jobs. It’ll be the second Virginia manufacturing operation for Pratt, calling for a capital investment of more than $20 million.
The scion and owner of the family company that got its start Down Under, Anthony Pratt is a big backer of President Trump and clearly has heeded the president’s call for investment in manufacturing jobs in the United States.
Pratt hasn’t been available lately to explain the purpose behind keeping his expensive newspaper-advertising campaign going over such a long period, but in 2017 he told Chief Executive that he has “a few goals” for the Journal ads.
“The most important one is to support our customers,” he said, “and a lot of them are in the food industry.” Pratt wants “a conversation to occur about how to double the size of the American food industry from $850 billion to $1.7 trillion.”
Food is “America’s biggest industry,” Pratt said, “dwarfing even cars and Silicon Valley, the movie business, oil and gas. So it’s America’s largest industry, and as Bill Gates said to me, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”
Indeed, in a typical ad about the food business, signed by him, Pratt discusses the importance of high-value food exports such as beef, dairy, beer, fruit and vegetables, and infant formula. He applauds Perdue and the U.S. government for pursuing new trade missions to places including India, Vietnam and the Philippines. And he urges the industry to adopt ag tech for better harvesting because “20 percent of many fruit[s] and vegetables are left on the vine due to lack of labor.”
Pratt told Chief Executive that “one of the great strengths of the Midwest is that the Amazons and Alibabas of the world are going to want to take stuff directly from the farm and send it as quickly as possible to the household.” People who produce food “aren’t going to be made obsolete by the internet the way Barnes & Noble was.”
“Food can only be made in certain places,” continued Pratt, who came to the United States in 1991 to represent his family in the paperboard business. U.S. sales of Pratt Industries now exceed $2.5 billion a year.
“It’s an arable-land issue, not a Silicon Valley issue. “The whole theme of ‘Export Food, Not Jobs’ is that two or three billion people are coming into the middle class in China and elsewhere in Asia, and the things that the U.S. does well in comparison with Asia are low-cost production of dairy and beef. The Midwest has a tremendous, sustainable competitive advantage in beef and dairy.
“The booming middle class of Asia will demand safe, clean protein. That’s one thing America and Australia have in common, is the branding of their food as safe. A kid isn’t going to die drinking milk powder.”