Posted: June 23, 2009
Made in America stamp has staying power
Denver author's new book focuses on American-made children's productsBy Patricia Kaowthumrong
ColoradoBiz recently sat down with Denver author Bruce Wolk to talk about his recently released shopping guide “Made Here, Baby!: The Essential Guide to Finding the Best American-Made Products for Your Kids.” The book includes 400 American manufacturers of toys, games, puzzles, hobbies, sporting goods, apparel, furniture, baby gear, bedding and other items for children.
Q: Tell us how your mother inspired you to write this book.
A: My mother is amazing. She just turned 91, and she was one of the original Rosie the Riveters, but her name was Ruth so they called her Ruthie the Riveter. She built fighter planes during World War II. What was truly amazing about my mom was that she was making the grand salary of $11 weekly at a department store. She went to her supervisor and asked for a nickel raise, but the United States hadn’t quite gotten out of the Great Depression yet. Of course, they said no, so she quit that job and went to work for another department store.
She then heard there was an opportunity at the Curtiss-Wright aircraft factory, but the catch was if she wanted to go to riveting school, she would have to do so without pay. Money was really tight, but she had the courage to go back to school. She was teamed up with another woman and became a riveter. They worked so well together that they allowed them to do quality control work. They worked overtime, double shifts and through lunches, and my mother started bringing home close to $60 weekly. The Great Depression was over for her.
She used to tell me that when she’d finish a section of the plane, she would touch it and say a prayer for the pilots so they’d be safe. I was fascinated by her story and other stories of American manufacturing. For example, my uncle was a bookbinder. My grandfather was an upholsterer for a train car company. My uncle Hank upholstered cars for Ford Motor Company. I heard such stories of inspiration from folks in this country that made things and made them very well.
We gave my mother a surprise party on her 90th birthday, and she turned to me unexpectedly and said, “Why don’t we make things in America anymore?” It just blew me away that she had not lost her belief in the fact that this country can manufacture beautiful, high-quality products with extremely good customer service. And we still do.
Q: So your love of manufacturing is literally genetic?
A: When I say as a writer that I grew up on the manufacturing floor, I really did. My first summer jobs in college were working in food factories. I would literally haul around stocks of ingredients and mix them. My first full-time job was in the pet food industry. I was in research and development, but I spent most of my time on the manufacturing floor. I’m very comfortable with the environment. I understand it and the people who work there.
Q: How did you go from a research biologist to designing and launching over 50 new children’s products?
A: I was initially trained as a marine biologist. I had a co-majors biology and English literature. I went to graduate school and continued to study biology. But I was constantly taking creative writing courses and freelancing. My first job was in research and development in the pet food industry. I was on the job for week when the director of research said that marketing wanted to develop a whole new line of foods. They wanted me to help develop the line. And that was really how I got into the factory environment again. That gave way to designing many different kinds of food and equipment. After I worked for the pet industry, I went to work for Avon in New York and was put in charge of the children’s business.
Q: In this global economy, why do you think it’s important to buy American-made products?
A: The throwaway answer to that is that we should always buy American to support our friends and neighbors. That’s a good argument but over the long haul, it doesn’t carry much weight. One of the arguments I always make when people mention the global economy is, "Why America isn’t a part of the globe?" When it comes to manufacturing, why are we always plucked up, set aside and put on a different shelf than the rest of the world?
First of all, manufacturing here makes sense especially if people are interested in sustainability or green manufacturing. I have had the pleasure of interviewing close to 500 companies. The degree to which they watch over their manufacturing process is very impressive. I’ve spoken with furniture manufacturers who will go out and replant the trees that they’ve taken. I’ve spoken with folks who manufacture wood products who will take the sawdust and recycle it. They’ll save wood scraps for kids to work with shop class.
I’ve talked to six or seven manufacturers that were doing business overseas, but brought their business back to the United States. Why? It is so difficult to control quality long distance and control the supply chain. If a mistake is made, you could be two months into a sales cycle without the ability to clear it up in time to meet your demand. It’s much better to manufacture here.
We also have a very educated work force here. I’ve had the privilege of working side by side with workers in multiple factories. I have met folks who work in factories who might have associate’s degrees; many have bachelor's or master’s degrees. They’re extremely bright and creative. They just want to make things with their hands.
Q: What message do you want readers to take from this book?
A: The most important message is that in most cases we have a choice. With this particular book, parents have a choice. If you’re considering buying a T-shirt, a toy, a puzzle or a pair of running shorts for your child, there are still American manufacturers who make the products you are looking for. Thinking there are no choices left is an incorrect assumption.
Q: Tell us about the second book you’re working on about American manufacturing. When is that coming out?
A: I’m currently working on a book about American made pet products. But I’m also working on another book where I can do more in-depth interviews with manufacturers. I can’t tell you what a privilege it has been for me to speak with so many really fine people. The one thing that all of the manufacturers have in common is absolutely nothing. It’s great to see the spirit that’s growing in here. I want to go into more in-depth interviews with the CEOs of these American companies and find out how they do business in these hard times.
It started off that I was just interviewing these companies, but then it felt like I was interviewing friends. Then over time, it was as if I had adopted 417 children. I worry about them. I care about them. I know they are all going through really hard times right now with this economy.
I’m not sure when either book will be done; it will depend on what publishers are interested.
I’m also still every involved with “Made Here, Baby,” especially since I keep getting inquiries from people who didn’t make it in the first book, but want to be included in the second edition. I don’t think I’m going to become a multimillionaire with this book, but if I can help any of the companies in this book gain a couple new customers then I’ve done my job. It all comes full circle. In a way I feel like I’m repaying my ancestors and giving back to the people that inspire me.
Q: Anything else?
A: It did take a lot of work, but from start to finish, it was and continues to be a labor of love. It’s something that I believe in. And I’m not a super flag waver, but if anything other than this book helped me rediscover America more, I can’t think of it. It's a tremendous spirit, the same spirit my mom had.
For more information about Bruce Wolk and his work, see www.madeherebaby.com.
Patricia Kaowthumrong is a student at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Contact her at Patricia.Kaowthumrong@colorado.edu.