September 20, 2017

Small Business, Big-Hearted Personality

My latest contribution, an account of an auto parts factory in Michigan, strays a bit from the mission. It probably won’t satisfy many people still looking to understand Trump Country.

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I pursued it because I was interested in why nonmetropolitan regions — counties that the president won comfortably — had ceased to be leading incubators of jobs as they had been just a generation ago. But the answers to that question (educational disparities and the opioid crisis, among others) quickly became less interesting to me than the individuality and daily gains and setbacks of the factory’s owner, Anita-Maria Quillen.

Ms. Quillen, 35, is one of those people we perhaps don’t know as well as we ought to. A small-business owner in the manufacturing sector, she is integral to the American economy. Difficult choices she makes to contain costs and remain afloat in a cutthroat global industry exact a high personal cost. On her computer monitor she has posted a sticky note to remind her to show empathy: “It’s about feelings.”

The mother of two small boys, Ms. Quillen — whose husband works for her overseeing the factory floor — voted for Mr. Trump (and admires his daughter Ivanka). But her daily personal and business obsessions have nothing to do with national politics. When a consultant visited her plant in May and asked what she hoped for in the future, she told him, “The goal for the company as a whole is to provide a better life for the employees that choose to be part of our family here.”

During my repeated visits in May and June, Ms. Quillen allowed me open access to her meetings and phone calls, her staff of 78 and the production floor.

A former pre-med student, she had fallen in love with manufacturing after working for a summer in the plant’s front office. (The company at the time was owned by her parents, and when it fell into bankruptcy Ms. Quillen cashed out her 401(k) and mortgaged her home to help rescue it.) As someone whose work product appears in pixels or evanescent newsprint, I could see how an infatuation with factories might be possible. There was something gloriously concrete about the injection-molding machines on the plant floor. One of them, Press 26, closes and opens like a slow-motion clap, producing 150,000 pucklike pieces a week. The pieces go into shock absorbers in Fords, Chevrolets and other vehicles.

The press operator, a man named Dorman Crews, 49, had been at the company for two and a half years. “I spent half my life playing hard,” he told me. “The other half it’s time to get real.” He had moved to Jackson to be “a phone call away” from a brother with health problems.

The time I spent at the factory was largely a period of setbacks for Ms. Quillen: She had lost $3 million in orders earlier in the year, and efforts to replace that work were fizzling. The bottom line was solid thanks to cost-cutting, but Ms. Quillen was not bringing new business in the door. The company was forced into a weeklong shutdown in July.

Since then, things have looked brighter. A customer Ms. Quillen suspected was on the verge of yanking millions in work reversed course. A second company she thought was giving her the runaround on a new part she proposed to make decided to order up the work after all: a job worth $1.2 million annually. “It’s crazy how quickly the tides can change,” Ms. Quillen wrote to me recently, as the latest federal jobs report showed a bump in factory employment. She was looking forward to hiring again, potentially good news in Trump Country.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/06/insider/small-business-trump-country.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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