Mark Twain once wrote to a friend, “The report of my death is an exaggeration.” It was in response to news items that he was dead or dying.
Twain’s quote can be applied today in regard to American manufacturing, particularly here in the Lehigh Valley. The conventional wisdom is that American manufacturing remains in a decline that began following its peak decades after World War II.
Reports of the death of American manufacturing, however, are an exaggeration.
The release of this year’s Lehigh Valley Business Top Private Companies makes clear the trend that we’ve been seeing in our region in recent years. Eight of the top 13 largest private companies in the Lehigh Valley region are manufacturers, including B. Braun, which is ranked as the largest private company in the area.
In fact, manufacturing was the third largest sector in the Lehigh Valley economy in 2013 by economic output. Only the health care and retail sectors made more contribution to our $33 billion regional gross domestic product.
It is true that, in general, manufacturing does not generate the jobs it once did in a less automated era. And, a quick glance at the declining employment trends during the last five decades is what leads to a somewhat simple conclusion.
The reality is that today’s manufacturing has been growing during the last five years in economic output. The explosion of technology and innovation has been the rebirth of American manufacturing, along with a focus on quality and craftsmanship.
We must live with the reality that a robust and growing manufacturing sector may never contain the same number of jobs that it did in a previous era.
B. Braun sits atop the list of private companies here and is a perfect example of the new American manufacturing. Braun makes medical device products and produces pharmaceuticals.
While it has a large employment base with 1,800 across the company, Braun has grown and expanded, utilizing clean room technologies and automated manufacturing.
It is a company that sells products around the world but retains a strong commitment to manufacturing in the United States. Its success is based in large part on innovation, precision manufacturing of items in high demand and a global reach and marketplace.
Victaulic, Lutron, Allen Organ and KME Fire Apparatus are four more examples of unique and innovative product manufactures based here in the Lehigh Valley region that have carved out a solid market share and are growing in their diverse industries.
Victaulic sells to a world market but recently has taken advantage of natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale regions of Pennsylvania, providing pipe connection products for the miles of gas lines necessary to support the state’s booming natural gas industry.
Lutron, also based in the Lehigh Valley, is one of the world’s leading producers of lighting control devices, which all started with the company’s ground-breaking development of the dimmer switch.
Allen Organ produces the incredibly rare product of high-quality organs for churches and other large institutional users. Much like Martin Guitars, Allen Organ has thrived throughout many decades because of its commitment to quality and precision in handmade musical instruments.
The presence of both Allen Organ and Martin Guitars give the Lehigh Valley a very desirable brand as a producer of high-end musical instruments.
FOOD, BEVERAGE GROWTH
By far the fastest growing sector of American manufacturing here in the Lehigh Valley during the last decade is the food and beverage sector. The Lehigh Valley region is now home to 46 major food producers and 11 brand name beverage producers.
With our location in the Northeast region of the United States, the Lehigh Valley area is a favorite of companies to distribute its products. Within a day’s drive to a region that spans from Boston to Richmond to the Great Lakes of the Midwest, the Valley has become home not just to distributors but also to the producers of food and beverage products.
Some of them are private companies that have been around a long time, such as D.G Yuengling and Sons Inc. of Pottsville and Just Born Inc. in Bethlehem, makers of the famous Peeps and Mike and Ike candies.
LURE OF THE VALLEY
As we celebrate the decades or even, in the case of Yuengling, centuries of success of manufacturers that call the Greater Lehigh Valley home, we welcome new manufacturing to our area, often from nontraditional avenues of growth.
This year, Fuling Plastics, the largest plastic manufacturer in China, selected the Lehigh Valley as the location for its first American manufacturing operation. Fuling sells plastic flatware to the American fast food and retail sectors with customers such as Wendy’s, Burger King, Target and Wal-Mart.
Fuling is now choosing to make that product here with American workers because of the attractiveness of the American manufacturing market and the Lehigh Valley.
Far from being dead, American manufacturing and production here in the Lehigh Valley region are alive and well.
Don Cunningham is the president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. He has had a 24-year career in the Lehigh Valley’s public and private sectors, working for or leading some of the most respected companies, institutions and governments in the region and the state.