Dean Barber

Why Manufacturing Matters to Me

In Uncategorized on December 2, 2012 at 6:58 am

We look at a son or a daughter and so often see the face of a father or a mother or even a grandparent.

Before he died, my older brother and I enjoyed our times together. Jim was in California. I was in the East, but we specifically made time for us. Whether it was wild boar hunting or shooting pool on a sawdust floor in some backwoods beer joint, we were the Barber boys and a force to be reckoned with.

We laughed too hard and we drank too much and people thought we were crazy. And we were, at least when we were together.

Occasionally during one of our frolics, Jim would literally stop me in my tracks  and say, “Man, you look just like Dad.” That sobering thought would make us both pause for a moment, before resuming our plunge into excess with yelling and sporatic gunfire.

I have this small football-shaped birthmark on the inside of my right calf. It is fading now, because I am getting old, but when I was a child, Jim gave me an unlikely explanation that I believed for the longest time: “That’s where the elephant pooped on you.”

Dad had the exact same birthmark at the exact same spot. And he never refuted Jim’s story.

Genetics versus Environment

So why do I recount these very personal tales? Because I have been thinking about that never-ending debate of whether we are more influenced by genetics or our environment and experiences.

I believe my experiences weigh more heavily on who I became and how I think, knowing full well that inherited DNA is somewhere in the mix.  I wasn’t a born musician, but rather developed a penchant for music because I grew up in a musical family.

I can trace my love of history to long walks with my grandfather, Homer, a retired captain of the Chattanooga Fire Department. Homer had a great eye for picking up arrow heads off the ground.

While we were walking on fire-fighting training grounds adjacent to the national Civil War battlefield park in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Homer stopped, stooped down picked up a tarnished brass union coat button. He handed it to me without saying a word. You can bet that I still have that button today and a bunch of arrow heads.

The point is that my love of music and history was a natural journey for me. And for that very same reason, I have this unabated interest, almost love, for manufacturing.

I Can Smell a Foundry

My father, Bob Barber, was a metallurgical engineer and known as an experienced and knowledgeable grey iron foundry man.  He had a knack for turning around ailing foundries, and there were always plenty of them. Dad knew if there was a foundry in a town by smelling the air.

The practice of melting and casting metal into a mold has been taking place for more than 5,000 years. Seven of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were metal casters. So we’re really talking old-school manufacturing.

We have probably lost a thousand foundries or more in the past two decades. According to the American Foundry Society, the U.S. casting industry currently consists of 2,010 operations (80 percent of which are small businesses with less than 100 employees), down from 2,336 five years ago.

Leave it to say, I grew up with foundry sand in my blood.  I didn’t go to college right after graduating from high school, but worked at a foundry as I wanted some time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

And while I did not follow the path of my father by pursuing a career in manufacturing, I have always believed that manufacturing was and remains key to our nation’s future. In short, if we stop making stuff, we will not only short shrift wealth that will permeate throughout society but we will relegate ourselves to has-been status as a nation. I truly believe that.

It is Up to Us

If this past Great Recession has revealed anything to us, I think it is becoming apparent that those communities whose local economies are based on something as ethereal as gaming, retail, tourism and real estate development, are essentially built upon a house of cards. Energy, technology, and manufacturing are far preferable as an economic foundation. As Waylon Jennings opined in the song, maybe it is time to get back to the basics.

And I believe the basics are a return to an emphasis of math and science in our schools and investing in research and development so that we can remain a dominant manufacturing power and not go the route of Great Britain.

By its very nature, manufacturing forces our hand to become a more innovative society. So it is really up to us – and federal government policy plays a huge role – on what we want to do and be as a nation.

On the local level, it is apparent that many communities have written off manufacturing. Their idea of economic development is to solely pursue the paper tiger of retail, as it will surely feed the coffers of local government with sales tax dollars. And just as certainly, their focus will by necessity create low-paying jobs that will do very little to build actual wealth in the community.

Because of my manufacturing roots, I cannot help but see such places as La La Land. Nice places to visit, mind you.

Accolades from a Real Place

Recently, I got one of the nicest accolades by a newfound, like-minded friend, who also comes from a manufacturing background. Barry Seneri, vice president of business investment with the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, wrote this:

“Dean has a passion for manufacturing best practices and is well-suited to assist companies in their search for the best location to set up operations.”

Coming from Barry and coming from Pittsburgh, which is a real place that has staked its future on energy, technology and manufacturing, well, that gives me a degree of confidence that I am not a complete nutjob.

But sometimes I feel like one or the very least a contrarian when I give fair warning. Despite the growth, despite the spate of happy stories that you continue to read about a manufacturing renaissance in this country, we are not out of the woods yet.

Yes, there has been growth in our manufacturing sector for the past two years. And, yes, we have learned that China is not the bargain-basement nirvana without its own risks.

You Want the Truth?

But the truth remains that there are daunting, unresolved structural problems as to the competitive nature of U.S. manufacturing. These long-standing problems, which go back decades, resulted in a hemorrhaging of nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2010. And if you are thinking that another massive bloodletting is not possible, think again.

I will be writing about the future face of manufacturing in the United States for an upcoming issue of Site Selection magazine. I’ve talked to realists, not cheerleaders, who have studied this issue in great depth.

And while there are areas that give us a distinct competitive advantage – suddenly we are awash in cheap natural gas and the US is poised to become the largest energy producer in the world by 2020 —  we continue to mire in a self-imposed environment that keeps our manufacturing sector from being all that it could be.

Again, we have choices to make as a country. Let’s make the right ones.

Let’s See that Pony Run

For the longest time, I equated land with a site. Not true. Land is land, but a site is where money has been spent setting the groundwork for something much bigger to come.

Last week, I gave a presentation to the board of directors of the Longview (Texas) Economic Development Corp., in which I explained the basis for our work in certifying a 705-acre industrial park.

We are in the final stages, and I am about to put my Barber Business Advisors seal of approval on our combined efforts, which essentially entails building an extensive documentary file on a site. I am the counselor and the overseer of such measures, which should eliminate a degree of risk for any industrial prospect.

That is the ultimate point — reduce risk for a corporate end user during the site selection process and thereby fast track a project. It serves as a tangible marketing tool for economic development organizations, not smoke and mirrors. We now have this site documented. All your questions can be answered because of the due diligence that we performed ahead of time.

Calling land a site is like calling a mule a race horse. The big difference is that a mule will never become a race horse, but land can become, with time and effort, a site. Now let’s see that pony run.

For more information, read “Site Certification: Saddle Up Old Kate.” Link: https://deanbarber.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/site-certification-saddle-up-old-kate/

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at dbarber@barberadvisors.com Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com

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  1. Dead on it.

  2. Dean is right on. If we don’t bring manufacturing back to this country, our economy will not recover to the point of providing the standard of living we have enjoyed in the past. Without manufacturing jobs there is no middle class, only high income professionals and servents. Isn’t that the way it is in so many countries today?

  3. Well said, Dean. Our readers will value your piece on manufacturing that we’ll publish this coming Thursday, Dec. 6, in the SiteNet Dispatch.

    Adam Bruns, managing editor, Site Selection magazine

  4. For the past 20 years our ED group at SCE has focused on manufacturing for the very reasons stated. It is the foundation of a sound economy and provides the highest job multiplier impacts. That said, productivity, automation, globalization and anti-unionism have collectively driven down the average wage and benefits that built the middle class downward, even for manufacturing workers. We are currently producing as much as we have done in the past with less workers. Does anyone believe that even with a return of manufacturing we will be creating the number and quality wage jobs we have lost? We are facing a systemic challenge in that our domestic private sector will not create the jobs needed to recreate our diminishing standard of living. Global trade agreements create a necessary friction between multinational corporations who play in this sandbox and the nation state. Solutions? Short of a self directed “buy American” consumer movement, our public sector is going to have to level the global playing field for selected growth industries (e.g. alternative energy) and initiate serious infrastructure construction projects to avoid a the establishment of a permanent second class.
    my two cents,

    • I think you sell yourself short, Jeff. Your comments are worth far more than two cents. Thank you. PS. I will be will be addressing some of your concerns for the article that I am working on for Site Selection magazine.

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