Meet the Business Owner Who's Speaking at the RNC

Steven Cohen
Photo by Michelle Murphy

Steve Cohen's Ohio small manufacturing company was a campaign stop for Mitt Romney 13 months ago when he was one of a dozen GOP presidential candidates.

Now Cohen will be visiting Romney's place — the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., where Cohen will be talking about the American manufacturing sector on behalf of the presumptive GOP nominee.

Why Cohen? "I ask that every day," says the 49-year-old Ohio State University graduate.

Other than an obvious affinity with Romney,  Cohen, of course, has a few things to recommend him. (More: Meet the Next 'Joe the Plumber')

His company, Screen Machine Industries, is family-owned and operated, employs 100 people, and competes with much larger publicly-traded firms — Terex , Astec Industries , for example — and is wedded to an export-driven growth strategy.

"We have to go where there is business," says Cohen. "American companies can absolutely compete abroad."

Political cynics and Romney critics might say that Cohen's place at the convention serves as a perfect foil to one image of the GOP candidate — a company-destroying, job-offshoring private equity kingpin, but Cohen isn't about to get involved in that debate.

On the presidency and Romney, Cohen says, "The president needs to have a good sense about how business is done." (More: Could Ryan's Small Business Ties Help the GOP?)

Cohen says that after he and his wife had a 20-30 minute conversation with Romney, he realized there "were so many similarities" between them. (Cohen declined to elaborate on the conversation.)

Like Romney, Cohen is following in his father's footsteps. In 1996, he took over the family business, which his father, Bernard, started as a steel fabrication plant with $3,000 nearly 40 years ago.

Much has changed since then. Columbus-based Screen Machine Industries now has two manufacturing plants, where it builds portable crushing and screening equipment used in construction and mining — machines like conveyors and sorters used on job sites.

Much of the equipment is geared for infrastructure work, which makes emerging markets, and countries with "high GDP rates," as Cohen puts it, prime business opportunities. (More:Secrets of Venture Capitalists)

SMI exports to Central and South America, but has yet to crack the Indian or Chinese markets, which Cohen describes as "difficult," partly because of "tariff issues," he says.

Issues, themes and theater, of course, are now key components of the modern party convention.

Cohen is more than facile with many of the issues facing small business and American enterprise in general, which will no doubt figure into his 20-minute speech, scheduled for 9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, following one by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

"Things may never be the way they were," says Cohen. "We’re going to have to discover new ways to make money."

Right now, Cohen says "burdensome" and "strangling" regulation — a key GOP theme — is not the only force holding back small business.

"We just don't see the demand," he says. "You need a reason to buy a new machine or new product. I don’t think that small business has this tremendous need to source new capital for growth — until we get an improved domestic economy."

That honest, if somewhat somber, assessment, is offset by the can-do optimism found in many entrepreneurs.

Americans must "continue to innovate," says Cohen. "We cannot make everything. There are some things that are not profitable to make. We can sub it out overseas, then take the more simplistic products and put them into our more complex machines, and create jobs."

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