The world is getting smaller for entrepreneurs, and that's a good thing. It gives entrepreneurs an opportunity to make an impact on more than just their businesses.
When my wife and I founded Levenger 25 years ago, we knew little about business but possessed two ingredients I consider essential for entrepreneurs—optimism and ignorance. (You definitely don't want to know too much, or you'll be afraid to start.) While we're still learning, we have grown wiser in some ways. One of them is knowing that for the kind of quality we demand in our products, we need to venture beyond our borders—and also appreciate what's in our backyard.
When entrepreneurial companies go global, they just might be doing their part for world peace as well as for their business. It's now pretty conclusive: the more nations trade, the less they fight. It's bad business to kill customers.
Of course, exceptions have been made. Nations have gone to war against countries they trade with. Citizens have punished neighbors who provide valuable economic services. Yet by and large, nations and citizens behave in their economic interests. This is one reason why capitalism can be such a powerful force for good.
From Michigan to Malaysia
At Levenger, we now source our products from all over the globe— including both the U.S. and China. We pride ourselves at finding the best-quality manufacturers of our goods no matter where they may be, with the same blind justice as the Olympics: let the best competitor win. We feel a deep obligation to make the best products we can—in quality, sustainability, and price—and pass that value to our customers.
If there were a map app of where Levenger products are made, it would literally be all over the map.
In the U.S., right now we're working with vendors in Michigan, Colorado, Louisiana, Tennessee, New Jersey and Iowa. The latter is where a particular pen nib that we offer is hand-ground.
We also currently work with furniture makers in New York and Pennsylvania, and an Amish group in Indiana. Most of our high-end specialty books that we publish (including one of historical photographs of China) are printed in Wisconsin.
We also venture into the other Americas. From Argentina comes some of the leather we use; from Chile, some of the pulp for the paper our Taiwanese manufacturer makes. From Haiti come iPad sleeves hand-quilted by women under the wing of an American humanitarian group, whom we hooked up with by way of Martha's Vineyard.
In Europe, we've partnered with a small, family-run leather manufactory in England for some of our highest price-point briefbags. We rely on Germany for the precision-cut steel nibs for our fountain pens and our pen refills (although the resin for our Kyoto pen comes, appropriately, from Japan). Italy is a source for some leather. So is Korea.
Like Marco Polo, we've constructed our own Silk Road of artisans and manufacturers in Asia. In both Thailand and India, we work with artisans in remote villages who hand-make reading pillows for e-readers and iPads . We supplement our payments to them with donations to local literacy programs.
Some of our paper comes from Malaysia; other papers, we source in Taiwan and China. And from China come many of our leather folios and bags.
We source most of our leather goods in China because currently, the Chinese make most of the world's best leather goods. I've toured numerous Chinese leather factories and can assure you that many of the bags sold on Via Spiga, Bond Street, Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive begin their careers in China. And this is a good thing.
The Chinese for decades have invested in the leather industry for both low-end and high-end goods. They have trained a vast labor pool of skilled workers required for the labor-intensive work that fine leather goods require. Owners and workers have benefited. In the twenty years I've been traveling to China, I've seen the parking lots jammed full of bicycles transform into lots full of motor scooters and cars. I've seen their factories add amenities (including libraries and computer learning centers) as they compete for skilled employees. I've seen the employees gain weight, which perhaps isn't healthy for them, but nevertheless marks their improving wealth.
In the early years, we stayed at Spartan factory dorms. These days, factory owners drive us with pride to luxury Hyatt Hotels, where Audis and Land Rovers owned by Chinese executives are parked outside.
The Chinese have the infrastructure (tanneries, equipment suppliers, hardware) to support the quick sampling and rapid scaling of production that our fast-paced world demands.
I'm all for more highly skilled jobs in America; they will require education, creativity and hard work—all things Americans are eminently capable of. American business executives have to play to our strengths, including innovation, entrepreneurism, and an understanding that doing the right thing can be profitable. A growing number of firms are embracing this latter philosophy, which is one of the cornerstones of Conscious Capitalism.
But protectionist trade policies will have no long-term beneficial effect for us or our trading partners. Isolation breeds alienation. The world is too small to be alone in anymore. We'll excel as a nation as we always have—with our smarts and hard work.
I'm seeing promising things.
Our American leather partner in western Massachusetts has more automation than most Chinese factories—for example, automated folding machines that yield higher-quality products faster.
Our American printing partner in Maine links to us with a network of computers so that the moment you press the order button on Levenger.com, a digital printing press in Maine begins to make your custom creation. Then, through plain New England hustle, the sons and daughters of Maine fishermen pack and ship those orders the same day they are produced.
Another of our American printing partners, the one that handles our book publishing, has been in business for 120 years. The company is updating its fleet of printing presses so that their equipment can run at higher speeds and handle larger sheets of paper.
For a wonderful historical perspective on trade, I recommend"The Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World" by William J. Bernstein. I quote from his summary:
World trade has yielded not only a bounty of material goods, but also of intellectual and cultural capital, an understanding of our neighbors, and a desire to sell things to others rather than annihilate them.
And for an uplifting look at the startling decline in world violence and the contributing role of commerce, I recommend Steven Pinker's meticulously researched and artfully written"The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined."
Pinker suggests that capitalism, with its trade, foreign investment and tendency to transparency in dealings, may actually be more of a causal factor for peace than is democracy itself. He quotes eminent peace researcher Nils Petter Gleditsch: "Make money, not war."
When our family visited Vietnam in 2004, we walked around a shopping mall in the city formerly called Saigon. It felt like suburban Pennsylvania. I shot a photo of our older son hugging a statue of Colonel Sanders outside a KFC, only a few blocks from a statue of Ho Chi Minh hugging a child.
Where once America had waged war, now we wage commerce. It is a small world, indeed. And for entrepreneurs, this offers a world of peace-inducing possibilities.
Steve co-founded Levenger in 1987 with his wife, Lori Granger Leveen. He holds a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of California, San Diego (his hometown), and master's and doctoral degrees in sociology from Cornell. Steve serves on the board of the National Book Foundation and is vice chair of the Education Committee of YPO-WPO, South Florida chapter.
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