One Man's Lifelong Drive to Promote U.S. Manufacturing

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Trade Shows
Job Shop Company Founder and CEO Ben Edwards

Few people are as passionate about U.S. manufacturing as Ben Edwards, who, along with his wife, Marge, started a company in 1974 to help connect big-name product manufacturers with the smaller, unsung companies--job shops--that could provide the manufacturing services they needed to build better products. To get the business started, Ben and Marge took a mortgage on their house in Prospect, Connecticut, and began producing tradeshows under the name of "The Job Shop Capabilities and Custom Components Show."

After struggling initially--Ben says that it took 10 years for them to develop a core of four tradeshows in the U.S.--the company began slowly to increase the number of shows they produced. Thirty-six years later, the company is known as The Job Shop Company (www.thejobshopcompany.com), producer of 11 regional Design-2-Part Shows (www.d2p.com) throughout the U.S. in manufacturing-intensive locations ranging from Long Beach, California, to Marlborough, Massachusetts. It's now a diversified marketing company that publishes Design-2-Part Magazine (www.design2partmagazine.com) and the Design-2-Part Buyers Guide (www.d2pbuyersguide.com) while also offering JobShop.com (www.jobshop.com), JobShopWebDesign (www.jobshopwebdesign.com) and RepPlace (www.repplace.com), a searchable online database of manufacturing representatives for job shops.

Ben took time out recently to share with D2P Magazine some of the insights into American manufacturing that he's gained throughout his career as a tireless promoter and forceful advocate for U.S. job shops and contract manufacturers. Following is an edited transcript of our interview.

D2P: When you started Job Shop Shows in 1974, what was your vision for the company at that time?

BE: The first company I had sold for was a metal stamping job shop in Waterbury, Connecticut, and I'd sold in upstate New York for them. I was a long way away from home, and the constant response I got from purchasing at the time was, "You folks are too far away, we need somebody that's next door, that we can come and talk to." So I came out of that field knowing that a trade show, if it was properly promoted and had the right people coming through, would basically help a job shop expand outside their current area of influence. By expanding past that area of influence, they gave themselves diversification outside their own regional area. If their regional area got depressed for any reason, they weren't going out of business. They already had a business in other parts of the country. My main goal was to get job shops to sell their products and services all the way across the country.

Why are the tradeshows and the magazine regional in scope?

If you go back 20 years ago or more, the Japanese influence was very strong and was competing heavily against U.S. manufacturing. Many purchasing people at the time came up with the idea that they should do business within a circle of 200 miles, because of a certain book that was written on Just in Time Manufacturing. The U.S. companies, at first, wouldn't pay much attention to it, so the author went to Japan and convinced the Japanese to do it. As a result of the Japanese success with this idea, American manufacturing companies then automatically thought that they should do business within a circle of 200 miles, and therefore they were pretty much opposed to doing business with anybody who was coming from an outside area.

We fought this. I said to people many times, "You mean if you found the best possible source in the country, and it's 210 miles from your plant, you won't do business with them? And they'd say, "Well, it's not 200 miles." That's a little shortsighted, but that's what they did. I think this is kind of typical of American manufacturing at the time, because they felt that the Japanese had succeeded. Nobody had taken the time to analyze the fact that Japan's a small country.

I felt from the very beginning that regionally was the way for these job shops to sell. But I also thought that they should be able to expand past their own region, and that's where we began to focus our efforts.

Purchasing had also gotten the idea that they didn't need a large number of national sources; instead they were going to consolidate their sources by using only regional vendors. I started to get worried about whether our business model could survive. So I began to cultivate the design/manufacturing engineer because I felt that purchasing's primary responsibility was to save their corporation money--that's how they moved up the chain; that's the value they brought to their company. The engineer's job, on the other hand, was to produce a better product that did well in the marketplace. His reputation rested on the fact that he was using good sources--not necessarily the lowest priced sources--and that the product was reliable. As the reputation of the product grew, his reputation grew, and he moved up through the organization.

D2P: What are some of the most noticeable changes--including recent changes--that you've seen in the manufacturing industry since you started the company?

BE: When I first started selling stampings, most of the OEM companies had their own divisions, where they produced every part that they had as a drawing. The only thing that they would outsource were parts that were very difficult that they couldn't do, or parts that they needed an increase in volume on, and they were booked out. So they'd have their own division, and you were quoting against that division. Therefore, you were required to come in and beat the price of the inside division, and they weren't putting the overhead weight on it. So you had a tough challenge; you had to sharpen your pencil in order to get business from these people.

So buying was primarily based on price, and my counter to that was, OK, you can buy it for a cheap price, but again, if you're having trouble with the part, what's the extra cost--what's the total cost--of buying the part? Not necessarily just the price you're going to buy it for, but what's the total cost? Does it have to be 100% inspected when it comes in? And if you don't 100% inspect it, and it stops the line, what's the cost of doing that? What if the part fails and you have a problem trying to get in touch with the people who made the part? All those kinds of things come into the total cost of the part.

As more and more companies and manufacturing associations picked up pretty well on this idea, this method of countering price became very effective.

Once that change in thinking started to happen, the OEMs began to sell off those departments and get rid of the equipment because a lot of it was staying idle for long periods of time. So, knowing they were buying expensive machines, and they were basically not being utilized, they said, "Why don't we just turn around and outsource this?" Outsourcing in the country went up tremendously at that time.

The other major thing about manufacturing that changed was that engineering was given equal footing with purchasing. The reason I believe this change came along happened during the period when the Japanese started to take over the car market. Americans used to say that if they bought an American car, the door handles would fall off, but if they bought a Japanese car, this wouldn't happen. They got mad about this, and because of that, the quality became a bigger issue.

And with quality comes an increase in price. You don't get better quality without paying something along the line. Somebody has to pay attention to what's going to make that part function and what's going to make it repeatable, so that every time you put it on a car, it's going to work, and it's going to work as it's designed to. So that changed the rest of the industry. Of course, the automotive industry was a long period of time adjusting to that, but in general, industry in this country adjusted to that very rapidly, and the Americans were known as having some of the highest quality products in the world at that time. They were very reliable, and the rest of the world bought from us.

D2P: How would you describe the state of the U.S. manufacturing industry today?

BE: My view of U.S. manufacturing today is that it's strong, even though the current administrations, whether they are Republican or Democrat, haven't done very much to help manufacturing in this country at all. They have not made it easy for manufacturers to write off new equipment; they have to extend those costs out over a long period of time. When manufacturers do make a profit, the government makes them estimate what their profit is and pay taxes quarterly. So they take all their working capital away from them, and they don't give them any chance to expand.

This gets to be very difficult for a job shop who's trying to juggle the cost of material, which is constantly increasing; and an OEM base that's extending out the amount of time that they have to pay them. So they get squeezed in the middle. And in my opinion, they're probably some of the most brilliant people and some of the hardest working people in the industry today. They don't get much credit for that, but they really are. We have a base of people who live by their wits--that's how they get jobs, that's how they hold jobs. It's not salesmanship; it's basically proving to the OEM that they can do it better, repeatably.

We have the nucleus here to be the best in the world for the future. The problem with that is going to be that the American public, because we're consumer oriented, is inclined to buy at the lowest price. They've been buying foreign products, and we have lost electronics products of all types, and to a lesser extent, automobiles.

One of the things that came out of this massive spending is that the dollar is going to be worth less and less money. I think what's going to happen in the future is that Americans will not be able to afford to buy products like they did before from overseas, and that's going to force--I would say 10-15 years from now-- the manufacturing core to rebuild itself in this country. And once we start to rebuild it, costs may rise, and people will have to save longer to get a product

I think that's where we're going to go and I believe the manufacturing core and the job shop core in this country will be very, very strong within 15 to 20 years from now. And the ones that have suffered through recessionary periods will become stronger because of what they're able to do by way of being innovative, or saving their money and investing it properly. Those people will be the leaders, and those people will grow tremendously.

What happens with all of this is that the base becomes stronger. We've got some of the strongest bases of manufacturing in the whole world, and our company is really fortunate to serve them. I think manufacturing is going to increase here in this country, and I think we're going to be a big part of that.

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