By Lauren Donia
The Christmas party at California Tool & Die this year could have been a Fourth of July picnic. The cuisine? Hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries and apple pie. The decorations? A banner reading “Made in the USA” and a large American flag. And the entertainment, a game that co-owner Dana Matejka invented.
Matejka had spent some time over the days prior at an area Costco, buying every American-made item she could find. There was no particular method to her madness, no theme; if she saw it and it had a “Made in the USA” label, it went into her cart. Matejka ended up with 19 products, ranging from Pyrex glass items to Skyy vodka, snack mix to tools. Following the shopping spree, she researched the companies. Party-goers were treated to a trivia game, asked questions about the various Made in America companies, and rewarded for their knowledge with the respective product.
It was the kind of party the Azusa-based company used to have more frequently, before the “great recession” when it had 22, sometimes 24 employees. Now? Ten full-timers and one part-timer – six of whom are family.
Matejka misses those days: The camaraderie of a bigger staff, and how much she loved coming to work because there was always something fun and new to do — there was work to do.
As with many small American manufacturing shops, California Tool & Die has fallen on hard times in recent years.
Matejka’s father, a tool and die maker by trade, started the shop in 1977 with Matejka’s older brother as his partner. Matejka was a freshman in high school at the time and planned to go to college to become a CPA. After a marriage, kids, and a divorce, she found herself working as a waitress, so when her father gave her the ultimatum “Come now or don’t come at all,” she joined the family business. It was a move that, she acknowledges, gave her life some stability.
“I felt like I had a little prestige,” Matejka said. “As (she and a second brother) were given some of the business, and then later bought the rest of the business, that was a real feeling of accomplishment, success.”
Fast forward a few years. Matejka got her accounting degree. As mentioned above, she and another brother bought out both their father and older sibling, and became co-owners of California Tool and Die. In 2004 they purchased an aluminum screen printing manufacturing company. But as the years went on, things started to change. Whereas the orders the company used to receive were huge, at times for quantities in the tens of thousands, they’re now significantly smaller. Significantly. For example: six.
Accounts they’ve had for decades have disappeared. Some companies uprooted and do all their business in China — effectively functioning as importers. Others were bought, and then bought again, until their signs bore the names of multi-national companies, rather than local lighting shops, and it became impossible to do business on a personal level.
California Tool & Die, like many other small manufacturing shops, saw the supply chain shift before its eyes and it wasn’t prepared for it. It can no longer survive by making parts for other local manufacturers and stocking distributors, as the former have left or been sold and the latter has allowed imports to take over. It can’t rely on industry magazines for advertisement, as they’re going out of print. The Made in America trade shows the company used to attend have stopped happening. And Dana Matejka and her brother are left wondering how and where to find new markets.
They aren’t alone. At the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), we receive emails from frustrated manufacturers frequently. Many voice similar concerns to Matejka’s, others have the opposite problem – they want an American-made component for the product they manufacture but can’t find companies that make it.
These narratives all make one thing clear: The American manufacturing sector is at a tipping point.
“I think that the average person just doesn’t realize … how this nation’s success has been built on manufacturing,” Matejka said. “I think that this country without manufacturing is going to be a shell.”
Through the years, you’ve heard AAM, elected officials at all levels, business and union leaders, and just about anyone else offer some equation of how the United States can slow the hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs.
In fact, yesterday, President Obama visited North Carolina State University to announce the second of 45 planned manufacturing hubs. This new one is to focus on high-tech manufacturing, specifically the designing and building of power electronics like semi-conductors.
This is nothing to scoff at; the president is taking measures to see that the United States re-builds its manufacturing sector around the technologies that will be most important in years to come. But there are many traditional manufacturers out there, like those at California Tool & Die, who are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. And very few leaders are offering them help or advice, despite the fact that the products they manufacture remain necessary.
Matejka, though, isn’t waiting. She believes the onus should be on the American consumer anyway.
“I think that really it’s going to come down to educating the American public,” she said. “People have to tell companies that they want the option, they want a choice, make something here. So, go ahead and make something over there, but make a version here, make a line here, make an item here. I’ve read a lot of things that it doesn’t take very much, if people would buy one more thing here how we could increase American manufacturing.”
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All photos courtesy of California Tool & Die/Dana Matejka