SIREN, Wis. - Story ideas are sent to television reporters from all sorts of places. But it was a trip to a home improvement store to buy a bird feeder for my backyard that left me a bit more optimistic about the future of manufacturing in America.
That feeder - smartly styled to resemble a little blue cottage - was on sale for less than ten bucks. It's the very kind of product we've become accustomed to seeing with a "Made in China" stamp in small letters somewhere on the packaging.
But this time, my eyes were immediately drawn to a small U.S. flag on a corner of the label. "Made in U.S.A." it whispered, in lettering that, frankly, deserved to be much larger.
One phone call and a two-hour-drive later I was standing in the factory where my new bird feeder was made.
North States Industries is headquartered in Blaine, but does its manufacturing at two plants in Wisconsin. Its largest is in Siren, where 95 workers make North States the biggest private employer in Burnett County.
Running seven days a week, 24 hours a day, North States has produced roughly 1.5 million molded plastic bird feeders in the past decade.
But its biggest seller is play-yards and safety gates for children and pets.
"This yard is the number one selling play-yard in the world," says George Nelson proudly. Nelson is a vice president at North States. His granddaughter Abby is pictured on the box. She's made in America too.
"Almost all our competitors are building in Asia and in Mexico," he tells me.
Nelson and the other managers at North States are not stupid. They know their factory jobs paying between $25,000 and $40,000 a year, plus health care, could be moved overseas for a fraction of that.
But they've reasoned their transportation costs would be higher, their quality control lower, and their ability to quickly respond to customers like Wal-Mart, compromised.
If ever North States had an excuse to relocate overseas it was 12 years ago, when its Siren factory was destroyed by a tornado. Some workers feared the worst.
"We had employees going to the unemployment office the morning after the tornado," recalls North States' president and CEO Dean Weisbeck.
They needn't have worried. Not only did North States rebuild in Siren, it didn't lay a single worker off during construction.
So who owns this place? Actually that's the best part. The employees fastening together the bird feeders and safety gates do.
North States is employee owned. Those making a career here have been known to convert the shares of company stock they earn into retirement funds a banker might envy.
"That's definitely what helps to hold the people here," says Rindy Erickson, who's been at North States just five years, but works with others who've put in 30 years or more.
And one more thing about producing locally -- it's catchy
Those bird feeders that caught my eye were designed by an Eden Prairie Company.
The mold in which they're produced was built in Coon Rapids.
The cables for hanging the feeders are fabricated in Minnetonka.
And the boxes in which they're packed are made in White Bear Lake.
North States didn't seek me out. I went looking for the company out of curiosity about my well constructed, yet low priced, bird feeder that wasn't made in China.
And if you too find a tiny bit of hope for America in a company that's managed that.
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