Band uniforms for high schools and major colleges. Fishing reels used by professional anglers. Shock absorbers. Robes worn by U.S. athletes at the London Olympics. Industrial cables used in products that venture to outer space. T-shirts commemorating the Cardinals' 2011 World Series title. Parts used in aircraft assembled around the world.
All products of labor long since gone from the United States, memories from an evaporating manufacturing base?
Nope. Try items being manufactured in your backyard.
While a common refrain nationally is the United States' manufacturing base has eroded, that jobs are gone and never coming back, a significant piece of the northern Missouri economy continues to thrive upon these jobs and people around the globe depend on the hidden gems produced here in northern Missouri. (See page 7 of today's Ledger for "Northern Missouri's Hidden Gems")
During the last decade, the number of Americans employed in manufacturing jobs tumbled from around 15.5 million in 2002 to a low of just more than 11 million in late 2009 during the most recent economic recession, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since then, however, manufacturing jobs have steadied and seen gains, recently topping more than 12 million in the U.S.
And through those difficult times, northern Missouri's manufacturers have continued to account for a significant percentage of both the overall workforce and region's economy.
The reasons they've stayed while so many others have sought greener pastures overseas are numerous, according to the region's economic development leaders, including loyalty, ties to agriculture, and access to highways, waterways and rails found here in the nation's midsection.
"In Mexico we've been successful in filling some of the gaps left by losses in specific areas of our economic sector. As a rural, mostly agricultural area we have a lot to offer which I believe has made us attractive to manufacturers looking for new locations," Assistant City Manager Russell Runge said. It is a benefit to have a four-lane highway which accesses the Interstate and two mainline rail lines which intersect the community."
Not to mention the fact Midwesterners have a reputation and live up to their billing.
"The work ethic is good in rural America," said Jerry Boling, operation manager of Ardent Reel in Macon, Mo. "There is a workforce in our area who want to work, and work while they are at work."
A study of eight counties – Adair, Audrain, Cooper, Linn, Livingston, Macon, Ralls and Randolph – and statistics compiled by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center showed 6,892 people employed by one of the 177 "firms" classified as manufacturers. That figure represents about 18 percent of the workforce engaged in private industry.
Audrain County's unemployment rate has consistently remained below 7 percent in 2012 which is the first time since 2008 that it has been below 7 percent.
Those workers represent a significant chunk of the region's economy beyond their employment status, taking home more than $256 million in wages, or nearly a quarter of the private industry payroll total.
"Most of the local employers are adding employees in a variety of different businesses, from distribution to manufacturing of refrigeration equipment to automotive and copper products. Mexico has a very robust economy which we look to continue to grow, expand and diversify," Runge said.
And as the work continues across the region, products continue to be shipped to points across the world, moving the "Made in Missouri" stamp to places like China, Brazil, South Africa and beyond.
"People think America does not manufacture in the foreign market, but we do," said Sebastien Heintz, CEO of Zenith Aircraft Company in Mexico, Mo. "Some local companies right here profit off of exporting to foreign countries, which is neat."
Runge added, "The economy of Audrain County is based on agriculture with the manufacture of biofuels contributing to our manufacturing base. However a large majority of the population relies upon the diversification of the employee base," Runge said. "The community's efforts to grow our existing employer base and the need to diversify those operations to better handle the needs of the region and to educate the employees to better adapt to the future of the region are our main priorities.
'The economy in rural America is very fluid and will remain so. Our ability to adapt to that fluidity will determine whether our economy will grow," Runge concluded.
Ledger Staff Writer Kimberly Long contributed to this story.
By the numbers
Key figures to know about Audrain County manufacturing
2,075 Manufacturing workers
6,652 Total workers
31.19 Percent of workers
40.68 Percent wages
Source: Missouri Economic Research and Information Center
Given the state of the nation's manufacturing sector and the country's struggle to revive, several local companies have managed to continue supplying worldwide demands, with products made right here in Mexico.
Merchandise from pharmaceuticals, plastics, cement and residential brick, to airplanes, car parts, golf cars and refrigeration components are manufactured locally. Audrain County also produces soybeans for grain and by-products, corn for feed, ethanol gas and more.
The owners of two Mexico-based manufacturing companies share how they have survived and continue to thrive in the United States, despite the country's loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas competition.
Zenith Aircraft Company, based at the Mexico Memorial Airport-Hagan Brothers Field, manufactures and sells complete airplane kits for building light aircraft. The company manufactures the parts that make up the airplane and then ships the complete kits to customers across the United States and around the world. This month, the company celebrated its 20th anniversary at its annual Zenith Open Hangar Day and Fly-in Saturday. Zenith opened in 1992.
The company CEO, France native Sebastien Heintz, owns the company with his father, Chris Heintz, the developer and designer of the planes the company builds. Heintz said they were attracted to Mexico because of its central location within the United States, its excellent airport facilities with land available on the airport grounds and the available workforce, which is made up of local residents. Zenith also maintains factory demonstrator aircraft at the airport (for flight tests and customer demonstration flights) and hosts two-day, hands-on workshops in the factory for prospective builders to gain building experience.
The company's success, Heintz said, is mainly due to its unique product and niche audience, its small size and dedicated workforce, the company's ideal accessibility to its customers and ability to distribute its products and supplies from its central location.
"Our customer base (aviation enthusiasts) is primarily in the U.S., but our market is spread out all over the place. So our location for distribution is great. We have good access from I-70 here by truck, air and rail, if you need it," Heintz said. The company currently employs 18 full-time workers and averages building at least one airplane kit a day.
For the last four or five years, Heintz said the market has been flat, but considering the economy, quite steady. Because of the recession, he said sales went down 50 percent, but are currently "posting nice gross figures."
"We're still in the lull of the recession, but we are working on new products, with baby-step improvements. We're always improving on what we are doing and how we are doing it. It keeps the job interesting and allows us to reach our heights," Heintz said. In theory, he noted there are 30-50 legitimate competitors, a dozen of which actually do what Zenith does. He said Zenith is not the biggest, but is definitely one of the leading ones. A big part of its business is the national market, but they do entertain the foreign market as well; mainly China and Brazil. "People think America does not manufacture in the foreign market. But we do. Some local companies right here (in Mexico) profit off of exporting to foreign countries. Which is neat."
Zenith Aircraft has an annual revenue of $5 to 10 million, according to Manta, the world's largest online community for promoting and connecting small business.
Mid America Brick, 600 Green Blvd., is a face brick production facility for residential and commercial building construction, and the only brick manufacturer located in central Missouri. It offers a broad line of commercial and residential brick with multiple colors and textures, and is sold through independent distributors.
MAB opened its doors in 2010, out of the infrastructure of the former A.P. Green Brick Refractory that closed in 2002. CEO Frank Cordie said he wanted to put life back into the facility, hence bringing back the city's proud "Brick City" title. MAB began production in early 2011 with the anticipation of producing in excess of 60 million bricks a year. Cordie would gain the backing of city, state and federal funding to help reach that goal.
"This isn't something that was funded by deep pockets. It was a project that was brought together over a three and half-year period of time of funding during some of the worst economic times for the construction industry," Cordie said "Mid America Brick is a culmination of a lot of entities coming together to revitalize an otherwise idle facility. We took a Brownfield-type project and through local investors, local government, state and federal government programs, a multitude of programs came together, of which with any individual one missing, the project would not have been possible."
With the construction industry still very much bottomed out and starting to come back, Cordie said MAB (still a fairly brand new company) is trying to enter the market, but it's a difficult time because the demand for the product is far less than what it has historically been since construction has been at average levels of building. The business climate at this time, he said, is not such that you can run wide open 12 months of the year and sell off the product.
"It's strictly a sign of the times in the construction industry," he said.
Cordie said the company currently employs 43-44 people, but that these numbers may go up and down as inventory fluctuates.
The plant is currently running one kiln and has been making brick for "right at one year." Its first year of operation, the company basically did demolition and mediation of all the new equipment that it would take to refurbish the building to make face brick and build a state of the art facility. In June 2011, it started making products and getting colors out on the market.
Since then, MAB has produced more than 50 different colors to find what the market place likes, which ones they wouldn't, and which would be their main seller.
"We thought we were going to be a residential market. But the residential market was not big enough to sustain us, so we developed a commercial line of products, an architectural line of products is what we call it, to serve the commercial industry stronger than we had thought," Cordie said. "We are now becoming, in our region, a significant player in the architectural market. We have some products that are hitting the market and are being received extremely well as some of the best products in the architectural market we serve."
Two major buildings in Mexico were built recently using MAB brick, the Consolidated Electric Cooperative home office and the Missouri Military Academy administration building.
MAB currently sells brick in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Texas, Kansas, and all the neighboring states. However, its core value is within a 300-mile radius.