Fred Clark isn't ignoring Connecticut's fiscal firestorm, but with summer here, he's fixated on getting truckloads of automobile racks for bikes and kayaks, car-top luggage carriers and other finished products out the factory door to meet seasonal demands from hundreds of retail customers. Besides, as the U.S. president of Thule (pronounced TOO-lee), the Seymour, Connecticut-based subsidiary of Swedish parent Thule Group, Clark is pretty happy with the way the company's business is going — and growing — even in the state's financially challenged environment.
"It's not the cheapest place to do business," the native Connecticuter admitted, "but it's not that bad." Thule's 2016 U.S. sales of not just racks and carriers but also strollers, bike trailers, luggage and all sorts of backpacks and bags reached nearly $240 million in North and South America, just under 40 percent of the global company's $645 million in total revenues.
Thule is one of nearly 4,000 manufacturers in Connecticut, representing one of the bright spots in an economy that grew a paltry 1 percent last year. In 2015, manufacturers accounted for 10.5 percent of its total output of $27.22 billion, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Connecticut currently employs almost 160,000 people in manufacturing, or 9.5 percent of the workforce, with an average annual compensation of about $95,000.
"The good news about manufacturing in Connecticut is that there really is a renaissance," said Peter Gioia, vice president and economist at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA). He gauges that resurgence by looking back a half century, when factory production was thriving, and forward into the Reagan years as the Pentagon's budget soared, benefiting a state, Gioia said, "where 25 percent of manufacturing totally depended on defense and another 40 percent was significantly dependent.
"Then the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and fell right on top of Connecticut manufacturing," he said, recalling the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the downsizing of the U.S. military buildup to confront it. "All of a sudden, defense went poof," Gioia added, and disappearing along with it were related contracts, jobs and companies throughout the state. That mimicked a trend throughout the Northeast and Midwest that began in the 1970s, as scores of manufacturers of every stripe relocated or expanded their operations to lower-cost states in the South, Mexico and overseas.
Connecticut, then under Gov. Lowell Weicker, responded by putting together incentive programs to lure manufacturers, and Thule was among those that took the bait in 1992. The state's Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) gave the company a $200,000 grant and a $1 million low-interest loan to establish its U.S. manufacturing beachhead in Seymour.
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"We forecasted our job growth then and have tripled it since," said Clark, who was hired in 1993, when U.S. sales were around $16 million. Between Seymour and giant warehouses in Beacon Falls and Milford, Thule today employs 325 workers in the state, he said, about 200 during peak production at the 110,000-square-foot factory, tucked into a woodsy industrial park 12 miles northwest of New Haven. Besides manufacturing, the facility houses R&D, product testing, shipping, warehousing and executive offices. "We've had two different expansions here," Clark noted, plus a $1.6 million renovation a few years ago, offset by a tax abatement from Seymour.