KENTWOOD — For the past couple years, manufacturers have been asking for recognition of manufacturing at the federal level and for industry representation in Washington.
They got what they asked for a few weeks ago with the appointment of Al Frink to the newly created position of U.S. Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary of Manufacturing and Services.
Frink’s now the voice on Capitol Hill for the manufacturing industry, and he has a permanent seat at the policy table.
In a visit to Grand Rapids Tuesday, Frink took a tour of Autocam Corp. and spoke to a group of about 50 about his plans.
He referred to the creation of the new manufacturing position as “historic” and said he’s pleased that the Bush Administration has such a “business mind” to it.
“We have business-minded people solving business-minded problems, and there is no substitute for that frontline experience. Politics doesn’t teach you the experiences that frontline business does.
“I’m one of you,” he said, referring to his 30-plus years of experience in the carpet manufacturing industry. He said his agenda is “No manufacturer left behind.”
Frink hit the ground running, visiting 19 manufacturers and talking to 120 corporate executives in four states in his first three weeks on the job. He learned something.
“I’ll tell you, the spirit of manufacturing in America is just off the graph, even in tough times. It’s the quality of the people and how they’ve been empowered to make a difference in the top line.
“I believe that the spirit of competition is one of the things that will drive manufacturing as we move forward. I see the determination that people have to win. If you can give manufacturing an even playing field, there is no doubt we can be competitive with any country in the world.”
Frink sees manufacturing as vital to the U.S. economy. Manufacturing represents 15.8 percent of the nation’s GDP, and when the multiplier factor is added — all the spin-off business the industry generates — it’s closer to 50 percent of GDP, he observed.
“Fifty percent of our economy,” he repeated, “and it has never had a voice.”
Frink said he will work to dismantle barriers to manufacturing. One of the ways to lower the barriers is lean manufacturing. Another is peeling away some of the government regulations on manufacturing. Another way to succeed in manufacturing is to create a very strong brand, he added.
Manufacturers need to market and produce quality products and differentiate their products and their companies, he stressed.
“It helps to be at the end of the business where there is less commodity and more specialization like Autocam is,” Frink said. “You can only do that if you build a great marketing monitor and a name and an attitude that is conveyed throughout your company.”
Asked by the Business Journal whether he’s against outsourcing work abroad, Frink said he believes global trade is the future.
“Offshoring shouldn’t be the ugly word,” he replied. “It’s kind of a hot-button term that sounds horrible, but there’s also insourcing. Look at the companies that have moved here, have built successful companies and hired a lot of people — dealing with the same barriers that sometimes forces companies to move away from here. They see opportunity in our people.”
He pointed out agriculture once was 40 percent of GDP and it’s now 2 percent, but it still does the same job, providing food for both the nation and the world. Advanced technology and improved productivity played a major role in that, Frink noted.
“All those people didn’t fall off the earth and not find jobs. I think there are so many new (manufacturing) areas that will be created. I’m confident of our resiliency. There is a need for more education to train individuals in high tech, ‘white collar’ manufacturing.”
In his new position, Frink takes advice and cues from the Department of Commerce Manufacturing Council, a new body created by the current administration to “serve as a strong voice for policies to grow manufacturing jobs,” according to the Commerce Department.
Fred Keller, founder and CEO of Cascade Engineering, and John Padilla, COO of Ford Motor Co., sit on the council with 11 other manufacturing leaders from across the industry.
As Keller observed, area manufacturers have the West Michigan Manufacturing Council at the local level and the Advanced Manufacturers Council at the state level, both of which enable members to learn best practices from each other and spur each other on to make continuous improvements.
The new national council offers similar but expanded opportunities, he suggested. The first national council meeting was held at Cascade Engineering.
Following his tour of Autocam, Frink said Autocam was “one of the most amazing companies” he’d ever seen. “Autocam embodies, in my mind, everything you need to do to be successful in America and differentiate yourself.” BJX