CBIA Manufacturing Conference, Fedele for Governor, and a Unity Plea

Today, I attended the Connecticut Business & Industry Association Manufacturing Conference, with my colleague, Jim Bowtruczyk.“On the line: The State of Manufacturing in Connecticut, “ was billed as a forum for manufacturers to join forces and voices to strengthen manufacturing.

The two of us represented Horst Engineering and saw many of our manufacturing sector friends. We gathered in Cromwell to show our solidarity of our beleaguered sector. With revenue declines of 15% to 60% since 2008, many Connecticut companies are anxious for 2009 to come to a close. Sadness and frustration are two words that come to mind when describing the current state of affairs for this important part of the economy.

The crazy thing is that if you look ahead at some of the new challenges that manufacturers might face, then you get even more concerned about our prospects for growth. Certainly there will be thriving manufacturers in the future, but the shake out has already claimed many victims, and there are bound to be more business failures. The colossal loss of jobs in Connecticut has devastated consumer spending and driven unemployment to unprecedented levels. Manufacturing jobs are vital to the state’s economy, yet many of our legislators are more concerned about preserving government programs and their own pet projects. Reducing government spending and incentivizing the private sector to grow jobs are not important objectives, though they should be.

Today’s conference was about rallying manufacturers to speak out on behalf of industry in an effort to highlight the critical importance of manufacturing jobs to the welfare of our state and our country. We heard from several speakers, including CBIA CEO, John Rathgeber. He implored the attendees to let the policy makers know important manufacturing is. We also heard from Commissioner Amey Marrella, of the Department of Environmental Protection. She took some shots from the crowd for DEP’s history of uneven enforcement, but succeeded in highlighting how her department is using lean enterprise, a page from the manufacturing play book, to eliminate waste in their processes.

Aric Newhouse of the National Association of Manufacturers, painted a bleak picture of the manufacturing economy. He spoke about four big issues facing manufacturers at the federal level: 1) health care reform, 2) Employee Free Choice Act (card check legislation), 3) climate change legislation, and 4) jobs. He spent most of his time dissecting the two health care bills in Congress. He pointed out how the Obama Administration has put most of its focus on access to health care, rather than the cost of health care. It is the cost of health care that is putting a massive burden on small businesses, like Horst Engineering.

When I asked what NAM’s position was on these current bills, he said without hesitation, “Start over.” NAM believes that both the Senate and House bills should be scrapped and that the whole process should begin again with health care cost reduction as the primary objective. NAM has many suggestions as how this should be done, and will be working on behalf of manufacturers and their employees. It is kind of crazy to hear all of the new taxes, mandates, and rules that are going to be placed on businesses should either of these two bills pass. To really understand health care reform, you have to dig into the details. Newhouse’s presentation was concise and riveting. Most of us, including NAM, agree that making health care accessible to all Americans is a noble goal. However, since health care is a cost that no small business has control over, and small businesses are responsible for the lion’s share of job creation in our country, they more should be done to reduce this massive burden on our businesses.

A panel that included Sam Bergami (Alinabal Holdings Corp.), Joe Vrabely, Jr. (Atlantic Steel & Processing), and Carol Wallace (Cooper-Atkins Corp.) shared first hand how their businesses have been damaged by the recession. They were candid in their discussion and their stories represent many of the challenges that their fellow manufacturers face.

Our last speaker hijacked the forum. His name is Michael Fedele, and he is the Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut. Fedele, a Republican, chose to precede his remarks at the meeting by announcing his candidacy for the governor seat that Jodi Rell will vacate when her term expires next year. Fedele is a friend of the CBIA because he is an entrepreneur, who proved his business mettle prior to entering public service. I don’t know much more about him, but as one of the many candidates (both Democratic and Republican) that has declared an interest in our state’s top job, we are sure to learn more.

It was a hilarious display of how politics works. The forum was going smoothly with a full house. Then, towards the end of the panel discussion, the back of the room began to fill with a bunch of new folks. The media section swelled, the cameramen appeared, and then the “handlers” lined up against a wall. After a brief delay, Fedele entered the room from a side door. John Rathgeber gave him a nice introduction before he took the podium and launched into the first official speech of his campaign. At the moment he announced his candidacy, a handler placed a “Fedele for Governor” sign at the foot of the podium. It was a made for TV moment and at that moment, I was glad for two things: 1) I had moved from the front to the back of the room and 2) I don’t own a TV.

As for the manufacturers, we had to get back to work because there is much work to be done. We shouldn’t count on any of our politicians. They will not help us climb from the depths of this recession. Stimulus is wasteful, and manufacturers spend their days eliminating waste. The government should loosen their grip, back off on the new tax proposals, and let small businesses innovate. To balance budgets, legislators and administrators will have to cut spending the same way businesses do in times of distress. Unless we get some breathing space and support, we will be hampered in our recovery efforts. Manufacturers, unite!

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