The plumbing industry gains much of its likable character from noble family-owned niche businesses going back multiple generations. Case in point is Peerless Pottery, founded 1902, which became one of the latest victims of globalization, having closed its plant in Rockport, IN, on Oct. 31. This month's Letters section contains a missive from Bruce Martin, inventor of pressure-assist flushing technology, detailing the circumstances and paying tribute to the company and its four generations of family ownership. It's well worth reading.
Another stalwart china manufacturer, Gerber Plumbing Fixtures Corp., would have met a similar fate were it not rescued last year with an acquisition by Taiwan's Globe Union, Inc. Like Peerless, Gerber had deep roots in Middle America, also operating plants in Indiana. Gerber/Globe Union executive Ron Grabski gave a forthright presentation of the company's plight as a panelist in a program I moderated titled, “The Future of Manufacturing in America?”, held in conjunction with ISH North America last Oct. 16.
Globe Union helped preserve around 400 American jobs that otherwise would have been lost, according to Grabski. The crisis faced by both Gerber and Peerless stemmed from outsourcing that had led basic china fixture prices to fall below the cost of production to domestic manufacturers their size. It's a story playing out throughout America, in numerous industries.
Nobody with a heart made of soft tissue can hear such stories without sadness. I am a son of the working class and a former factory worker. So I know as well as anyone how much those jobs mean to so many people whose hard work compensates for disadvantaged backgrounds. We also need to understand how difficult it is for manufacturing workers to find comparable opportunities once they disappear.
We read a lot about callousness within the corporate world. Too many CEOs get obscenely rewarded for treating workers like disposable commodities. The Gerbers and Peerlesses of the world offer a more balanced perspective of capitalism. I know many of the people in the Gerber family and organization, and how much they care for their people. They could have and, from a hard dollars and cents standpoint, probably should have sold out long ago to the highest bidder, employees be damned. Instead, they stuck it out for many more years than a lot of consultants would say made sense. They did so out of loyalty to the people who worked for them, and until they found a suitor committed to preserving at least some of their American jobs.
I don't have any personal connections at Peerless Pottery, but I found out that as recently as last June, the company spent more than $200,000 to obtain matching funds from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development for a program to teach existing employees new manufacturing competencies and continuous process improvement techniques. It apparently was too little, too late, but the gesture depicts a company going the last mile to save jobs.
What can be done to prevent future obituaries of American plumbing manufacturers? Coming up with answers is a lot harder than lamenting losses.
The two other panelists on our “Future of Manufacturing?” program at ISH NA had some pertinent insight into this issue. NIBCO President and CEO Rex Martin told of his company's ongoing program to stay competitive with imports and outsourcing through productivity, automation and efficiency improvements, as well as a virtual obsession with eliminating mistakes. Process improvement may have its limits, but NIBCO, which operates 10 U.S. plants, is doing all it can to push those limits.
The other panelist, Thomas Bradtke of the Boston Consulting Group, brought a balanced view of globalization. Domestic companies still have some operating advantages, physical proximity ranking near the top. Small manufacturers need to identify and leverage their advantages, just as marketing departments strive to identify and satisfy customer needs. Outsourcing makes sense in many cases, according to Bradtke, but he threw cold water on the overheated notion that American manufacturing is doomed.
It should be noted that none of these distinguished panelists beat a drum for tariffs and protectionism as a way to preserve America's manufacturing base. Everyone wants a level playing field, but globalization is a runaway train that can't be stopped without causing even more disastrous consequences.
Let's keep things in perspective. At a centenarian's funeral, you won't hear many folks talking about untimely death. Family and friends instead will pay tribute to the accomplishments of a life that's spanned a century. In that spirit, let us congratulate Peerless Pottery for having served America well for more than 100 years. It's a claim only a tiny percentage of companies can make. <<