Magazine October 20, 2014, Issue

We Build This

(Luba Myts)
American manufacturing is not dead — it is thriving

Gowanus, Brooklyn — Joel Bukiewicz, hipster cutler and proprietor of Cut Brooklyn, thought he was going to be a novelist. What he is is the textbook example of the new American manufacturer, a maker and purveyor of bankroll-bustingly expensive kitchen knives prized by blade aficionados and steel freaks around the world, from home enthusiasts to celebrity chefs. Ursine and bearded, surrounded by grinders and other machinery scavenged from industrial sites around the New York area, he’s a businessman who doesn’t seem quite comfortable thinking of himself as a businessman: He’s part artisan, part post-industrial industrialist, part social-media-enabled entrepreneur, and his stoic affect rarely gives away that he’s always quietly going off in eleven directions at once, running to FedEx for last-second deliveries one minute, trying to figure out if city codes will permit him to build a demonstration kitchen in his shop the next.

Not the sort of thing they teach you when you’re getting a creative-writing MFA.

Bukiewicz and his fiancée, both working on novels, retreated from New York to a family farm in Georgia, where he spent his days alternating between writing and working around the property. The book project was frustrating, and when he was finished, he swore off writing for three months. “But I needed to work,” he says, “to make something.” He decided to make a knife out of some scrap metal he’d found in a shed, but he really had no idea what he was doing.

“I made a . . . knife-shaped object,” he says. An imperfect first effort, but in the end, “I had this beautiful and useful thing.” The idea stuck, and the next phase of his education began: Online tutorials and articles, YouTube videos, obscure knife-making books tracked down on the Web, and other resources helped him get a handle on the science of the thing, and he now talks casually about the Rockwell hardness scale and the like. “The Internet is an amazing resource for learning as well as selling,” he says. “I couldn’t have done this 20 years ago.” The science he could learn, but the art was all trial and error. “Mistakes are the best way for me to learn,” he says.

When the market speaks, it sometimes speaks very clearly. Bukiewicz’s shop is open only four hours a day — two days a week — during which limited time he reliably sells everything he has put up on the wall. General Motors has a multi-billion-dollar marketing and inventory-management apparatus to help it deal with unsold cars; Bukiewicz has Twitter, and it’s more efficient. In fact, his first big problem as a businessman was exactly the problem you want to have: Too many people wanted to give him money in exchange for his products. When he decided to go into business, signing a lease on a Brooklyn storefront the same week he got married, he started taking orders and immediately found himself with a backlog that he feared would take him years to clear: “I made myself a worker in my own factory, and that wasn’t what I wanted.” As the waiting list “started eking up on three years,” he stopped taking orders, worked donkey hours to clear out his backlog, and then instituted a new business model: He makes what interests him, and sees if anybody wants to buy it.

So far, so good.

Bukiewicz is one of the more celebrated faces of a minor manufacturing renaissance in Brooklyn, where a community of small enterprises and individual artisans has grown up and come together around the business of making things, from high-end furniture companies such as Wonk to the Kings County Distillery, which turns New York–grown grains into handmade hooch at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Jewelers turn reclaimed precious metals into new pieces, milliners transform vintage hats into modern products. “Made in Brooklyn” is a source of local pride in everything from boots to mayonnaise.

But when Americans think of manufacturing, they aren’t thinking of Joel Bukiewicz. Nobody comes into his shop and punches a clock before an eight-hour shift on an assembly line. With their sentimental attachment to a 1950s romantic ideal of the manufacturing economy that never really existed — those jobs were a great deal harder and paid a great deal less than is generally appreciated — Americans tend to imagine something more like what’s across the line in Queens, where Steinway and Sons, despite its financial struggles, still manufactures its famous D concert grand and eight other models of piano, its factory topped by an $875,000 solar-powered dehumidification system to protect the masterpieces within from the vicissitudes of New York City’s punitive weather.

Steinway could be the textbook case of American manufacturing’s ascent — and its recent difficulties, too. Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, a German immigrant, opened up a piano workshop in Manhattan in 1853. Steinweg became Steinway, and soon it was a big enough business to occupy a company town in Queens and to maintain a second factory back in Germany. An innovative firm, it held more than 100 patents for improvements in the manufacture of pianos. Most of the businesses once like it are gone now, their factories converted into loft apartments, but Steinway and Sons soldiers on, with some difficulty: Orders crashed after the 2008–09 financial crisis, and a third of the New York work force was laid off.

Hedge-fund titan John Paulson, a collector of Steinway pianos, bought the company outright in 2013 and took it private. His firm had invested in many companies over the years, but it had never purchased one outright. Why this one? The answer is that what Joel Bukiewicz is to kitchen cutlery, what Brooklyn’s Empire Mayonnaise is to artisanal bacon and black-garlic oil-and-egg-yolk emulsions, Steinway is to pianos: a maker of extraordinarily high-quality, high-value-added products that are part high tech and part high art. Explaining his decision to acquire the piano-maker, Paulson said: “No one has such a high share of the high end.” That’s what the best American manufacturing is: We’re never going to compete on price with poor sweaty hungry backwaters when it comes to churning out injection-molded plastic toys and flip-flops — nor should we want to. America isn’t Casio — we’re Steinway.

St. Louis

We have been told a story about the decline of American manufacturing, and it’s mostly B.S. American manufacturing is not dead and it is not dying. Our manufacturing output is, in real terms, up — way up — over the post-war golden age, and from Boeing aircraft to Mercedes SUVs, the best things in the world are still American-made.

“We’ll compete with anybody, anywhere,” says Michael Geraghty, president of Sensient Technologies’ Color Group in St. Louis. “We beat them daily. Our advantage is the cultural approach to business in America — we innovate, we fall forward, we adapt, we don’t give up. For us and for American manufacturing, the emerging global middle class is an opportunity.”

The so-called race to the bottom, in which American workers and firms are undercut by Asian sweatshop hostages with no safety or environmental protection, is largely a fiction. Sensient isn’t outsourcing — it’s insourcing, bringing operations based in Tijuana back to the United States. Contrary to the myth that Elizabeth Warren and Mike Huckabee want to sell you, global direct investment does not generally go chasing low wages and closed economies: The No. 1 recipient of foreign direct investment last year was, in fact, the United States. The United Kingdom was No. 2. China and Hong Kong are on the top-ten list, to be sure, but the rest of the gang is Germany, Belgium, France, Canada, Switzerland, and Spain. If there is a race to the bottom on wages, the finish line is not in Zurich, Stuttgart, Brussels, Toronto, Barcelona, or New York.

Neither is it in St. Louis, an old industrial city that has seen its share of struggles, where Sensient is quietly going about being one of the biggest companies you’ve never heard of, and a company that prefers it that way.

“If you look in your refrigerator, or in your medicine cabinet, we’re probably in one out of every three products you see,” Geraghty says. Sensient, a leading maker of colors, flavors, scents, coatings, and related materials, does not talk about its clients, many of them makers of iconic products, but the orange tint in your orange soda, the cherry flavor in your cough syrup, the blue in your prescription medication and the time-release coating that it requires, the “antique fuchsia” in your cosmetics — there’s a pretty good chance that Sensient had a hand in one or more of them.

It is, by all accounts, a great business to be in. So you’d think that people would be lined up at the door with résumés in hand. But Geraghty tells a story that is repeated by everybody from executives at high-end construction companies to high-tech recruiters: Even with millions of Americans unemployed, good people are hard to find.

“We hire a lot of chemists and chemical engineers,” he says, “but we also hire technicians, skilled laborers, and for other positions, and it is harder than you’d imagine to find A players.” He cites problems in the education system and returns several times to the theme of unrealistic expectations and the sense of entitlement among Millennials. “We move people up and promote from within,” he says. “There are many people here who do not have degrees but are in positions of responsibility. Sensient is about results, not the degree behind your name. But you have to perform.” He says he likes to recruit former military and has found the company’s experiences at college job fairs “spotty.”

“We’re always looking for people who want to make and build,” he says. “Make and build” is a formulation that I’ll hear repeated over and over by makers and builders who have never met one another but who all intuit the same thing — that the future of American manufacturing is as much a cultural issue as an economic and political one.

It would of course be an excellent thing if regulators did not work quite so hard to suck all the joy out of making and building. As Sensient executives walk me through the basics of the FDA-oversight process — they cannot so much as put a label on a batch of Red Dye No. 5 until the FDA has sampled it — I think about Joel Bukiewicz back in Brooklyn and his reference to “all kinds of codes,” to being unsure what he is permitted to do under the law. He and I did not talk politics, and I certainly did not get a whiff of flaming right-winger off the New School creative-writing MFA. Still, there was a distinct note of frustration in his voice when he discussed how difficult it can be for him to find out “if it’s even legal” to set up a certain piece of machinery in his shop. Companies such as Sensient can handle that — the St. Louis facility spends $8 million a year just on maintenance, so lawyers and regulatory-compliance officers are no big deal. But what about the little shops, the startups, the three-man operations? Your average small-scale clothing company in Brooklyn does not throw off enough revenue to keep a team of lawyers on retainer.

Those businesses may seem like they’re worlds apart from an industrial giant like Sensient, but there is more of a connection between the chemical company and the Brooklyn artisan-entrepreneurs than you might imagine. Geraghty is pretty stoked to tell me about a product his company is making to enable digital ink-jet printing on textiles, using aqueous ink. “A designer in New York can go from the drawing to the shelf in a month,” he says. “If you have an idea for a design, you don’t have to order a whole shipment. You can print one tie.”

Strange how the cutthroat competition of American capitalism so closely resembles cooperation.

Sensient is not an outlying success story. In real (that is, inflation-adjusted) terms, U.S. manufacturing output today is more than four times what it was in the 1950s, the purported golden age of American manufacturing. In population-adjusted terms, we manufacture more, not less, than we did then. We export more, too, and what we export tends to be the really good stuff: airplanes, semiconductors, industrial components, etc. Our manufacturing workers are about three times as productive today as they were in the 1970s, thanks to a mountain of investment in productive capital, and they are paid much, much more than they were then, too.

As the rest of the world began to pick itself up from the ruins of World War II and the ruination of Communism, other countries began to catch up, and our part of total world manufacturing output declined relative to theirs: In the post-war era, nearly $1 in every $3 in worldwide manufacturing was American output; today, it’s about $1 in every $5. In the 1980s, the Asian superman who terrified American business executives was Japanese; today, he is Chinese, but the IMF finds that both the American and the Chinese contribution to world manufacturing output have stabilized in the post-crisis era, with each country producing about 20 percent of the total. No doubt we will find a new Asian with whom to terrify ourselves in a year or two. India’s looking pretty good.

But there is one manufacturing metric that some people find disheartening, because they misunderstand what it means: Manufacturing employment is down from its 20th-century peak. We make a lot more stuff than we used to, but we employ fewer people doing it. That should be good news: Manufacturing employment isn’t down because Americans aren’t good at manufacturing, but because Americans are awesome at manufacturing, making radical gains in efficiency and productivity that have allowed fewer resources to be consumed in the production of greater output. If you have a 19th-century, Bismarckian view of society as one big factory, that’s a problem: The schools are a factory that produces workers, and more factories are needed to absorb them. If the factories are absorbing fewer workers, then that’s a cause for panic, and politicians start talking about how many jobs they’re going to “create,” which is a laughable proposition if you think about it for two seconds.

But there is another way of looking at the work force. Instead of asking, “My God, how are we ever going to create enough jobs to employ all these millions?” try asking, “My God, we have this incredibly rich resource, these millions of workers in one of the most well-educated, highly skilled, dynamic economies in all the world — to what productive ends might they be put?” People need jobs, and companies such as Sensient need people, but we’re trying to put a lot of round employee pegs into square employer holes. Addressing that in a substantive, aggressive way is necessary both to American workers’ employment prospects and to American manufacturers’ competitiveness — which are intimately intertwined issues.

Cliff Clavin has some pretty good ideas about laborer–manufacturer matchmaking. John Ratzenberger, a veteran actor who was in everything from Gandhi to The Empire Strikes Back, is probably known to your kids as Hamm the Piggy Bank from the Pixar Toy Story series, but you know him as mailman Cliff Clavin from Cheers. For some years, he hosted a reality television show called “Made in America,” in which he explored the how-to behind such iconic American products as Harley-Davidson, Airstream, Pyrex, Steinway — even Spam. And as he traveled from factory to factory, a deepening awareness set in: We have millions of people unemployed, millions of young people marginally employed with dire prospects, and factories that cannot find the skilled workers they need, because nobody is being trained for the work that needs doing. We’re all going to college on the theory that that is the ticket to the middle class, but there are other avenues of advancement that may be more attractive for many young people. It may be that Joel Bukiewicz found getting his MFA very enriching, but a great many young people would rather bypass those lost working years and the student-loan debt to go straight into rewarding, remunerative work. Ratzenberger, whose mother worked in the Remington Arms factory in his native Connecticut, sees two problems: The first is the basic lack of available vocational training; the second and arguably more serious problem is a culture that dissuades young people from taking skilled-labor jobs.

“We’ve denigrated people with skills since the Woodstock era,” he says. “That’s when it started. I was a traveling carpenter at the time, among the Woodstockians in the Age of Aquarius, and people would say, ‘Oh, Mister Macho Man,’ because I had a tool belt — but they said it in a way that was supposed to make you feel bad. Then that started to be reflected on television and in movies: Every time you saw somebody with a toolbox — plumber, carpenter, lumberjack, whatever — they were depicted as being an idiot. Why would a child growing up seeing that all their lives want to do that kind of work?”

Ratzenberger is an advocate of vocational education, and promotes a program called MOST — Mobile Outreach Skills Training — that works with businesses searching for skilled workers and dispatches mobile classrooms to provide training on site. Ratzenberger is not shy about comparing MOST’s operating model with that of traditional government job-training programs. “We go to the companies, say, ‘What do you need?’; they tell us, and we pull up our trailer-truck classrooms and train people to do specific jobs. It costs us about $7,000 a head to train these people; for the government, it’s six figures. Our retention rate is 96 percent of people on the job after six months; for the government, it’s 14 percent.”

He relates a conversation with the CEO of a very large construction company in the West who suggested that the company might have to reduce its operations or even close in a few years because it cannot find enough skilled drywall installers, masons, glaziers, and technicians to do its work. Ratzenberger dreams of establishing a “tinker’s class” for every five-to-eight-year-old, where children could follow in the footsteps of Edison and Franklin and simply explore the physical, mechanical world to see what they can do. He connects the loss of the tinkering habit directly to the decline in the tradition of skilled work.

“Bridgeport, where I grew up, was the ‘arsenal of democracy’ in World War II, and it produced a phenomenal amount of war materials — tanks, helicopters, guns, you name it. Everybody had a skill. There was never a repairman called to our neighborhood: If your father or uncle couldn’t figure it out, a neighbor could. Growing up in that atmosphere, that’s what I thought the world was like. At 14, I wanted to learn to build a house and everything in it — and I learned. I built a couple of houses and some furniture. But I still haven’t built everything in it.”

If he wants to build the house and everything in it, he should talk to Merle Adams.

Gallatin, Mont.

‘When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back.” That’s one of many quotes from famous builders cited by Montana’s Big Timberworks, and the builder in this case was an especially famous one: Steve Jobs. And Merle Adams sounds more than a little like the Apple visionary when he describes his business: “We don’t sell things — we sell ideas.”

To call Big Timberworks a woodworking shop would be like calling Apple a computer company. Yes, it is, but it is a great deal more. They’ll make you a desk — a bespoke, one-of-a-kind item, possibly made from wood recovered from the 1907 Pierce-Arrow factory in Buffalo or a grain elevator in Saskatchewan, fastened with old railroad spikes from Montana. The firm recently advertised its acquisition of a load of wood from the old Trojan condom factory in Trenton, N.J. (“a nice selection of large timbers,” indeed). They’ll outfit your home with shelves, closets, pantries, staircases, and furniture unlike anything you can buy anywhere — or they will build the whole house, if you like. As Adams shows a group of visitors around the facility, the scale of the operation becomes apparent. “The way we work, I can go out to the shop and see how they’re building something and say ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’ on the spot. I don’t like being dependent on other people. I like doing it in the way I want it to be done.” His guidelines are verbatim those that Joel Bukiewicz uses to describe his knives: “Beautiful and useful.”

“My generation, from the Seventies, there was still some necessity to invent, and I tried to find cheap, cool things. Sometimes, I see kids in their 20s, and there’s not much desire to make things — they’re enraptured by technology. But around here, in Montana, there’s a lot of people who make cool stuff.” And it’s more than woodworking: Across town, another company builds $100,000 custom rock-crawlers — not bolting aftermarket parts onto Jeep Wranglers, but fabricating components on laser-cutting tables. As with media, the tools of manufacturing have been democratized. But the tools require training, skill, and, most important, curiosity.

When Adams was getting started, he says, he’d regularly see “wild-eyed” young men show up at his shop with the desire to build something. Now, it’s harder for him to find young people. “I’d like to get three or four more young ones. I like to try to keep a mix, and some of my guys have been with me almost 30 years. I’m wondering if there’s still that desire to experiment, that passion.”

Big Timberworks is sort of like one of those Sonoma farm-to-table restaurants, with everything from the sawmill to the architect to the timber-framers in one shop, with work from design and engineering to fine joinery executed by a single worker-owned cooperative. It is hard work, but there is a certain romance to it. Adams says that of his current projects, the one that excites him most is a barn he is building, which will be used for special events. “It’s built in a traditional manner, and it’s very, very rustic. It’ll be a place where people are married, people party, people gather together. They wouldn’t know me from Adam, but the work of my hands, my design, might create a memory for them.”

He shows off some cool pieces, desks and dining tables that might be bound for a Montana cabin or a Tribeca loft, and tells stories about the oddball places from which his favorite pieces of wood have been reclaimed. But he keeps a careful eye on the sawmill, too.

“I’m a wild-eyed dreamer,” he says. “But I’m also a realist.”

A custom knife-maker in Brooklyn, a major chemical company, a former itinerant carpenter from the Woodstock generation, a Montana-based builder in the most traditional sense of the word: Without even getting into the household-name manufacturers, the breadth and depth of what Americans make and do is spectacular, and it is not rendered less so merely because industries such as finance and services have made spectacular advances of their own in the past several generations. Of all the executives, technicians, and craftsmen I speak with, it may be the carpenter-turned-actor who best puts his finger on our current challenge — a culture that treats those who work with their hands as being somehow less than those who work with symbols and software.

We are, in a sense, victims of Bastiat’s “seen and unseen.” The failures are what jump out at us: Our automotive industry isn’t what it used to be, and competitors overseas have displaced American firms in fields that once were points of pride, from consumer electronics to steel. But to lament the fact that the American economy of 2014 doesn’t look like the American economy of 1963 is backward-looking and deeply un-American — and it blinds us to the success stories all around us. That not only gives us an inaccurate picture of the economy, but it prevents us from learning and applying the lessons offered by the best American makers.

As Ratzenberger argues, it would be an excellent thing if our education system spent less time trying to place people into third- and fourth-tier academic programs to swell the ranks of marginally employed poli-sci and Victorian-lit graduates, and invested more in those who make and build and do; if we valued the beautiful and the useful as much as we do the clever; if we reconnected with the great American tinkering tradition that brought the world such innovations as the airplane and the personal computer. More than any government program, regulatory reform, or targeted tax cut, it is reinvigorating that culture, and the entrepreneurial vocation that goes along with it, that will keep Americans building the next big thing, the insanely great thing, the beautiful and the useful thing. The politicians always get it wrong: We did build that. We do. We will.

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