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One US factory goes global, while Trump shrinks the world

Carey Smith, who renamed his company after getting calls asking about his oversize, "big ass fans," in Lexington, Ky.
Jonathan Palmer | The New York Times
Carey Smith, who renamed his company after getting calls asking about his oversize, "big ass fans," in Lexington, Ky.

Never mind the refrain that the American factory is supposedly a dinosaur in the age of globalization.

Here in the heart of horse country, some 700 American workers are designing and building premium ceiling fans. They tap local engineering prowess and export their wares around the world using a whimsical brand: Big Ass Fans. (Yes, that is really its name.)

But if the company stands as refutation to the premature obituaries for American manufacturing, the people running the operation worry about a looming risk. Talk of trade hostilities from Washington could shrink the globe, potentially yielding policy that could limit American exports while impeding access to crucial components of manufacturing.

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The latest concern unfolds this week, as the Trump administration begins to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, redrawing the terms of commerce with Mexico and Canada.

The president has long criticized Nafta as a lethal threat to American livelihoods, asserting that it has spurred an exodus of jobs to Mexico while opening the borders to unfairly cheap, tariff-free imports. He has vowed to bring factory jobs back to the United States.

In outlining its goals for the Nafta renegotiation, the Trump administration listed as a priority shrinking American trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. Trade experts construed that as an intention to limit imports from those countries.

But many of the imports encouraged by Nafta are parts and raw materials used by American workers in fashioning finished wares. If Mr. Trump limits such imports, that could increase the cost of making goods at many American factories. It could provoke Canada and Mexico to similarly restrict trade, diminishing their purchases of American products.

In short, Mr. Trump's efforts to bring work back to the United States could eliminate some jobs that are already here.

"Altering Nafta could fundamentally change the production of the economy — for the U.S., as well as for Mexico — and that will be very disruptive," said Swati Dhingra, an economist at the London School of Economics. "Many of the policies being proposed could end up hurting the people who are being left behind."

Big Ass Fans could wind up paying more for motors it imports from Mexico. It could lose sales to Canada and Mexico, now its two largest export destinations, and the destinations for more than a third of American exports over all.

"If we get into a trade war, that could significantly impact our U.S. production," said Paul Lauritzen, the company's vice president for manufacturing. "It just seems like the Trump guys are so focused on meeting campaign promises that they have failed to understand the reality of manufacturing and the global supply chain."

In the world economy as depicted by President Trump, a product made in Mexico and sold on American shelves represents a theft. Such wares should have been forged in the United States, using American hands.

In this spirit, Mr. Trump first threatened to kill Nafta, and later agreed to the renegotiation getting underway. He has vowed to slap tariffs on a range of Chinese goods including steel. He has accused his predecessors of destroying American factory jobs by assenting to a series of abominable trade deals.

A growing body of research has concluded that a surge of imported goods produced in low-wage countries — especially China — has indeed eliminated millions of American jobs in recent decades. Some research has found that trade with Mexico modestly depressed wage growth during the 1990s in the most-affected blue-collar industries, among them the textile trade.

"We strongly support President Trump's intention to reopen Nafta, and agree that it can be updated and improved to significantly enhance U.S. textile production, exports and employment," Auggie Tantillo, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, an industry trade group, said in written remarks submitted to a congressional panel in June.

Still, Mr. Tantillo argued against reinstating tariffs, while cautioning that the renegotiation must not disrupt "the high level of supply chain integration that exists today."

Unions from the Steelworkers to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. have assailed Nafta as a job killer while also accusing the Trump administration of failing to define effective goals to boost workers' interests.

Canada and Mexico are the largest and third-largest source of imports used by American companies in producing exports. In 2011, the most recent year for which government data is available, imports from those two countries yielded more than $1.6 billion worth of American exports.

As Mr. Lauritzen walks through his plant on a recent afternoon, he lifts an electrical device that regulates the power supply for a new line of highly energy-efficient industrial lights. It was imported from China.

"If you wanted to source this domestically, your options would be minimal to zero," he says.

Big Ass Fans began life in 1999 with a more staid name, the HVLS Fan Company. It specialized in enormous industrial-grade fans hung in vast spaces like factories and airplane hangars as a way to reduce use of heating and air-conditioning. The largest fans reach 24 feet in diameter and sell for upward of $8,000.

As customers began using blunt language to describe the products, the company took their declarations as its name. Its complex on the outskirts of Lexington features no end of brand-related mischief. Signs reserve a favored parking spot for the "Wise Ass of the Month." The company mascot is a donkey named Fanny.

Beneath the joviality is a serious engineering operation. In 2008, when the global financial system was ensnared in disaster and the company's revenue was about $30 million a year, it invested nearly one-third of that sum in a new research and development facility.

Company innovators used the facility to develop a popular feature that simulates the variable wind speeds of an ocean breeze, which provides relief from the constant blowing of a typical fan. The company started a new residential line under the Haiku brand, using a molded hunk of stainless steel, bamboo and other luxurious materials.

By 2012, revenue had tripled to $90 million, according to the company. Last year, it reached $240 million.

Big Ass Fans pays well above the state average, investing in the notion that happier workers are more productive. One-third of its assembly line workers earn more than $40,000 a year, plus health insurance, according to the company.

Ray Hawkins, 38, landed at the factory four years ago, after being laid off from his previous job as a welder at a nearby Toyota plant. He had endured four years of joblessness with a young son at home. Since starting at the company, he has worked his way up to a supervisory position and now earns nearly one-and-a-half times his previous pay.

"When I was at Toyota, I felt like I was just a number," he said. "Now, everybody knows my name."

But company overseers are feeling pressure.

Jamie Hillegonds, director of global operations, is looking for savings in the supply chain. The Trump administration presents itself as a champion of business, eager to strip away job-killing regulations. Yet she finds herself having to anticipate how the president might complicate her plans.

Her company buys motors from a Midwestern supplier known for quality and good prices. But the supplier recently shifted its production to Mexico. If the Nafta renegotiation makes that product more expensive, she will have to adjust.

"It's very difficult to develop a global sourcing strategy based on Trump's day-to-day whims about what he wants to do," Ms. Hillegonds said.

Jonathan Bostock, the chief operating officer, wonders what happens if the Trump administration follows through on plans to impose tariffs on steel as a way to limit China's exports. Big Ass Fans buys little steel directly, but the companies that supply its parts purchase the material.

"It goes downstream, and someone ends up paying," he said.

Mr. Lauritzen, the vice president for manufacturing, was disheartened by Mr. Trump's decision to revoke American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling agreement encompassing a dozen Pacific Rim countries that amount to nearly 40 percent of the global economy.

He watched in dismay as Japan, a central participant in the Pacific pact, secured some consolation in signing a trade deal with the European Union. The United States lacks such a deal with Europe. So American companies are now vulnerable to higher tariffs on sales to Europe than those faced by its Japanese competitors.

With the United States out of the pact, Big Ass Fans is more likely to serve Asian customers from its factory in Malaysia rather than expanding in Kentucky, he said, adding, "Every time we miss out on one of those, when other countries are negotiating free trade agreements, that disadvantages us."