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Build it…and They Will Export!

March 23, 2011
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Andrew Wylegala is the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Serivce’s Senior Commercial Officer in Hong Kong.

San Francisco’s economy is tourists, bankers, Craigslist and, of course, Twitter.  Wrong spot to send a government export promoter looking for more Made in the USA material to help reach the President’s National Export goal of saving or creating some two million jobs by 2015.

Maybe not.

I’ve opted to stop in the services city by the bay en route to the annual Asia Pacific Business Outlook Conference held at the University of Southern California’s business school, where this year 180 US firms will come for updates on Asian markets and export tips, and to hear from Secretary Gary Locke.  The Commercial Service, part of the International Trade Administration, an operating unit in Mr. Locke’s Department, assigned me to Hong Kong to work on behalf of U.S. companies and economic interests about three years ago.  I’ll be joined at the conference by a dozen of my colleagues similarly positioned in other Asian capitals to do the same export enhancing work.  This year I’ve opted to stop in San Francisco to meet with current and future U.S. exporters, in addition to those meeting us in LA for the seminars and one-on-one counseling sessions.

Left to right: Commercial Officer Douglas Wallace, Commercial Officer Andrew Wylegala, and Sculptor/Manufacturer, Capitano di Minuzie Nikolas Weinstein stand on the Weinstein Studios shop floor.

Left to right: Commercial Officer Douglas Wallace, Commercial Officer Andrew Wylegala, and Sculptor/Manufacturer, Capitano di Minuzie Nikolas Weinstein stand on the Weinstein Studios shop floor.

I am standing in the middle of Nikolas Weinstein’s glass sculpture studio located improbably enough behind a Mission District laundromat.  And I am trying to decide which is more shocking — the 30′ undulation of helix-shaped glass tubes of a work in progress, suspended above the furnace, forklift and flat-panel displays of this compact factory, or the discovery that precision manufacture on an industrial scale can still be carried out in San Francisco.  Downtown San Francisco!  We ARE  talking export manufacture.  The vast majority of Nick’s work is destined for grand residences and luxury hotels overseas, mostly in Asian cities such as Singapore and Shanghai.  And we are talking BIG exports.   I learn that — at over 250′ unfurled — the glass “fabric” of a work now soaring above the lobbies of a Shanghai luxury hotel (looking in the glossy photos like one of those Chinese acrobat’s ribbons) and comprised of some 35,000 hand-worked glass tubes, would not have fit in the 747 that brought me here from Hong Kong overnight.  And we are talking innovation.  To execute the unique forms of a Weinstein chandelier I now recall visiting at a Gehry-designed bank headquarters next to the re-constructed American Embassy in Berlin, Nick’s team even had to invent a special matrix bed for the in situ kiln.

But Nick is explaining that it is not finding more projects in booming Asia, nor the glass- and mind-bending technical complexity of his shapes, nor even the delivery headaches of the fragile works that keep him up at night.  It turns out that the chain of glass blowers, metal formers and ceramic suppliers needed to execute these fantasies in glass is nearly as long as some of his installations.  And the nature of this work — one-off, site-specific projects whose execution requires endless iteration of tweak and turn — is such that relative proximity is a must.

So this preview stop of my Business Outlook Conference tour reveals a snapshot as complex and organic as a Weinstein: the offering of conceived- and fabricated-in-the U.S. product remains as rich as ever, but the challenge of keeping U.S. production chains short enough that they remain linked is a daunting one.  I am thinking that U.S. export growth can be part of the solution to this challenge, by providing Nick’s manufacturer partners with sufficient scale and income to stay in business and in Nick’s “neighborhood.”  Should this prove to be the case, we will not only reach that National Export goal but also prove to the world that, “yeah, we DO still make stuff in the U.S.”  The best stuff.

12 comments

  1. “Improve competitiveness” is a mantra frequently heard in discussions of how countries can increase economic growth. What that slogan actually means is that global corporations want workers in developed countries to agree to wage reductions to levels similar to those in the People’s Republic of China. The unspoken threat is that workers will be driven to accept such reductions inevitably.

    Wages in China are actually rising due to the country’s success in extracting manufacturing jobs from the rest of the world. The correct policy that should be pursued by developed countries and China is to have the PRC adjust its labor markets so that Chinese workers’ wages continue to converge with those of workers in developing countries.

    Increased standards of living for Chinese workers will mean less of a reduction in standards of living in developed countries. In some industries, Chinese goods are already not competitive with similar goods produced in developed countries due to transportation costs.

    Executive management currently colludes with a corrupt PRC system to extract the value of increased productivity throughout the world to increase the wealth of the top 1% of society…the super-rich. Workers throughout the world need to organize to reject the “competitiveness” propaganda and restructure the distribution of wealth more fairly.


  2. There is no doubt that U.S. stuff is the best (I think the situation in Japan shows that they are and have been out of the competition). The only problem is dirt cheap Chinese stuff of a pretty decent quality which, let’s face it, grows with every year. Even with the shortest production and distribution chains it is very difficult to create more jobs and combat with the manufacturers where the average monthly salary is about a few dollars.


  3. I totally agree with Antony here. And China is making a big advantage over other countries when it comes to cheap but decent products. And with labor so cheap, I can’t blame more foreign countries, specifically US companies are moving in.


  4. China is totalitarian and that’s what it owes it’s tremendous economic growth to. We live in a different, more liberal society with higher welfare level, so higher costs of our own products is the price we pay for that. That is normal. WHat is the annual import from China to the US? I think it is still impressive. If we used out own products we wouldn’t go broke but the economy would benefit tremendously!


  5. Whatever the temporary advantages, History shows protectionism does not work. Inefficient industries will eventually go under. In the UK, textiles moved from northern England to India. a century later Shipbuilding left for primarily Asia. Most of the coal mines closed. This was prior to globalization. Capital will flow to wherever it can be most effectively employed.


  6. The problem is that not just textile but hi-tech industries also go to China. Just about ten years ago an electrical device from China was a ridicule. Now it’s a great share of the world’s electrical market and of acceptable quality, as was justly mentioned. In prospect, it’s not just an industry but an entire civilization going under. I think we all know why the civilization is still floating and that makes me shiver.


  7. It’s true…made in USA products are still much better quality than products from other countries. If only they can be as cheap as other counties’ products though.


  8. I would be interested in a comparison with Russia and/or India…


  9. Products from USA are of quality product, the problem is that this a bit expensive and those poor countries would not be able to buy such products.


  10. It would be good to manufacture products here that other countries won’t be able to produce. That way they will be forced to buy from us.


  11. Absolutely agree with Joy. I think it’s time that our our industries and investors focused on intellectual innovations not accessible to other countries yet. No matter how good our products are, as long as they are based on relatively simple technologies India and China will beat us with their cheap labor and even not so high quality. However, intellectual products based or researches that need much investment and higher level of knowledge is what we can actually export, such as new medications, new methods of treating infections in medical industries, new equipment. My wife is a doctor and I know it pretty well that health is something everyone needs and is ready to pay for for a lifetime. And I wouldn’t risk to have certain procedures done in India, no matter how cheap they are.


  12. Totally agree Joy and Ron…people are always going to buy from the likes of India and China as they can relatively the same products but at a much lower cost. Like you said Ron medication and medical procedures is something that we all need and therefore will be bought at any cost. There are something’s that can’t be made on the cheap….



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