Don’t Let This Happen to You

No, no, no… I am not talking about the older but striking couple whose picture accompanies this column.

No, no, no… I am not talking about the older but striking couple whose picture accompanies this column. Those are my parents, for crying out loud, and though elderly (my dad will be 92 this month, my mother turned 86 in July), they both have been blessed with good health, enjoy themselves more than they did 30 years ago, and still have much to contribute. Mom still has Sunday dinner at her house and does all the cooking. Last month they celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.

All kidding aside, I actually am talking about them. You see, my parents worked in the garment industry when I was growing up. They owned a factory in my hometown of Jersey City, N.J., and later moved it to Bayonne, N.J. They employed 30 or so sewing-machine operators. They would receive cut material from the dress manufacturer (sleeves, belts, collars, etc.) and sew the pieces together following their customer’s design. They were a unionized job shop. They ran a good business for close to 40 years. Remember the commercial jingle, “Look for the union label,” in the ’70s and ’80s? Those commercials were sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which was once one of this country’s largest labor unions and the first that had a predominantly female membership.

So what does all this have to do with our industry?

The U.S. garment industry was likely the first business—even before toys—to migrate from our shores to the Far East, where people (sometimes children) worked for pennies an hour around the clock in deplorable conditions. But they sewed a dress about as well as the unionized workforce in the States did, and by the time my father retired in the early ’80s virtually all of the garment industry had outsourced manufacturing to Asia. My parents were able to sell the business, but now there is a bank where the factory used to be.

We’ve seen this exact same trend in parts of our industry, in both processing and moldmaking. But unlike my parents and the U.S. garment manufacturing business, I think we can do a bit more to remain viable. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate. Whether you’re in commodity bags or high-tech molded components, you can distinguish yourself from competitors, whether foreign or U.S.-based. Does price and only price rule the roost in your business? Then explore ways to become a more shrewd buyer of resin, look into automation technology to reduce your overhead, explore ways to run your machines faster while using less material.
  • Aim high. In my travels I have seen American processors with capabilities that match any in the world. But some still think of themselves as part makers. You’re not. You provide solutions to problems. See if there are opportunities to compete in higher-end markets. Maybe you make three-layer bags. Is there an opportunity to take that skill set and apply it to markets more insulated from lower-cost competitors, such as seven- to nine-layer (or more) food-packaging film?
  • Market aggressively. Read Bill Wood’s economics column this month on p. 52. It talks about the medical market, and how growing populations and economies in China, India, and elsewhere are going to increase demand for these products. Are you prepared to bring products into these markets? You have the technology, but do you have the sales channels?
  • Keep on top of technology advances. Enough of this “We don’t do it that way here in the States,” regarding technology gains that are considered standard in other parts of the world. Think long-term. Think more about payback than purchase price, about how a new piece of equipment can help you make more money over time.
  • Go green. Sustainability is not going away. It’s just getting bigger. Look into material and additives technology that will permit you to position your product as “green.” Your customers are going to demand it, even if it is just for their own marketing purposes.
  • We’ve seen enough segments of our manufacturing base move offshore. Plastics doesn’t have to be another one.