By Brian Boyd
Written off as dead by many, manufacturing is in fact alive and well.
It’s even gaining a little more energy after suffering through the worst of the recession. The New Bedford area’s manufacturing sector, which produces everything from golf balls and men’s clothing to catalytic converters and o-rings, has added an estimated 700 jobs since a low point nearly two years ago.
Rebounding sales have buoyed local companies such as Precix Inc., the former Acushnet Rubber Co., which makes fuel seals and o-rings in New Bedford.
“In some cases, we are so busy we have actually turned some new customers away because we can’t keep up,” said David Slutz, the firm’s president and chief executive officer.
It employs 312 workers, up from 195 during the dark days of late 2008 and early 2009, and it could be up to 330 by this fall, he said.
The manager of the New Bedford Business Park says a number of manufacturing tenants have either enjoyed an upturn in the past year, with some even beating pre-recession sales.
“A handful of manufacturers experienced a sharp increase in sales by introducing a new product, entering new markets, or obtaining new significant customers,” said Thomas G. Davis, executive director of the Greater New Bedford Industrial Foundation.
On the other hand, several businesses in the park rely on the construction industry, which is still slumping, he said.
Manufacturing has been one of the bright spots as the country slowly recovers from the worst recession since the Great Depression. The country’s manufacturing sector has expanded for 23 consecutive months, while the services sector has grown for 19 consecutive months, according to the Institute for Supply Management.
This doesn’t mean the sector will employ as many people as it once did. Manufacturers survive by specializing in high-end products and keeping a tight lid on costs through automation and management practices.
“The story is often told we don’t make anything in this country anymore, (that) our manufacturing industry is dead,” said Dr. Michael Goodman, associate professor and chairman of UMass Dartmouth’s Department of Public Policy. “That is not really true. We make more Ñ and more different things Ñ than ever before. We just make them with a significantly smaller number of workers.”
The number of manufacturing jobs was declining before the downturn. From 1990 to December 2007, the beginning of the recession, jobs in the New Bedford area fell by more than a third, from 16,100 to 9,900, according to data provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
As the recession forced companies to cut back, local manufacturing jobs bottomed out in August 2009 at 8,400 before making a partial recovery. The number grew to 9,100 in May, the latest month for which local numbers are available, an analysis by the Boston Fed shows.
“New Bedford is more reliant on manufacturing” than the state as a whole, said Robert Clifford, a policy analyst at the Boston Fed who researched the local numbers.
Manufacturing jobs account for 13.7 percent of the area’s workforce, compared to 7.9 percent statewide.
Exports, a good indicator of demand for manufacturing, are also on the rebound. While local export data isn’t available, total Massachusetts exports jumped 11.3 percent in 2010 from the previous year. That follows a 16.8 percent decline from 2008 to 2009, according to Clifford.
Local manufacturers said they have managed to survive the downturn and find new opportunities.
The Acushnet Company, the Fairhaven-based maker of Titleist golf balls that employs more than 1,800 people in the area, has looked to new markets as the recession cut into American’s discretionary spending.
“While it appears that the U.S. economy is starting its recovery, the main barometer that drives the golf ball industry is rounds of play, and that category continues to decline in the U.S.,” said Jerry Bellis, president of Titleist Golf Balls, in a statement.
However, opportunities overseas have helped the company sustain and even increase slightly its staffing levels in the past couple of years, he said.
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which employs 340 in Marion secured several contracts from the U.S. Navy this year and expects to hire up to 15 new assemblers/technicians over the next several months.
“This year we are seeing an increase in our Polaris commercial contract manufacturing business as well as in our other program areas that serve our Department of Defense and international military customers,” said spokeswoman Tracy L. McNeil in a statement.
Some small manufacturers are thriving as well.
Davico Mfg., a New Bedford business that makes replacement catalytic converters, saw its sales jump 20 percent last year and it expects to do at least as well this year. It employs nearly 60 workers, up from 35 last year, said Ray Surprenant, the company’s president.
Davico adheres to a philosophy known as “lean manufacturing,” emphasizing cost controls.
It strives to be nimble, training its employees in different aspects of production so they can be flexible and react faster to business changes than their competitors.
New workers start wielding finished products and graduate upstream to earlier stages of production, Surprenant said.
“You can put people where they are most needed and maintain the quality of the product, he said.
The company is open to employee suggestions for managing costs. The approach differs from the top-down model of traditional manufacturing, he said.
Increased productivity also makes a difference. Precix has boosted its productivity over the last decade.
The company used to make less than $100,000 in sales per employee. Today, it makes $150,000 in sales per employee, in part due to automation, new product mix and other changes, Slutz said.
“We can get more sales out the door with fewer employees, and that’s how you survive,” he said.
Since the company makes components for commercial aircraft and cars, it only has to compete with other businesses with the same degree of specialization.
“If you’re not a niche-based manufacturer, you’re not going to survive in North America,” Slutz said. “You really want to focus on higher end products that have a lot of material content, not as much labor content, because obviously we’re competing with labor all over the world that is a lot (cheaper) than our labor.”
Suit maker Joseph Abboud Manufacturing manages to succeed in New Bedford by focusing on high-end men’s clothing. It would be difficult to make less expensive clothing in the United States, said Anthony R. Sapienza, chief executive officer of parent company JA Apparel Corp.
The factory, which employed 575 people in 2006, had to lay off many of those workers and shorten hours when the recession battered the men’s apparel business. Its workforce fell to 325. But starting last year, business began picking up, allowing the company to hire many people back. It now employs about 450, according to Sapienza.
Since the company does make its products here, it can boast of that fact in its marketing. Sapienza said customers who are wary about the quality of imported products are attracted to American-made goods.
“Made in USA has real cache that we as company intend to continue to market and see as brand attribute and a source of strength,” Sapienza said. “We think the (New Bedford) factory is weapon we can use against competitors.”
The days of having one or two massive businesses employ most people in a community are gone, and they are not likely to return. Instead, the key for the New Bedford is to attract and retain multiple manufacturers.
As long as it can provide skilled workers, the region can be competitive, thanks in part to lower real estate costs and its proximity to Boston, Providence, and the shipping lanes of the Atlantic Ocean, Goodman said.
“Smaller and medium-sized firms need to be cultivated, and to extent they succeed, they need to be retained in the area,” he said.
July 10, 2011 12:00 AM
By Brian Boyd