The times they are a changing

Sunday, April 25th, 2004

by Dennis DiPaolo

Bob Dylan first sang that, though I don’t remember him ever being able to sing. How old? This is my 30th summer running a pool store, so it’s certainly over 40! However, a few months ago, I saw something I thought I would never see in my lifetime.
On the inside front cover of the casual furniture industry’s trade journal, a full page advertisement proudly announcing that several of America’s oldest and proudest names in patio furniture (now owned by a single holding company), have just opened their giant new factory in China. Yes, that’s proudly announcing, with a big photograph of a beautiful new all-white building. The world has gone upside down, and I’m not even talking politics.

Jeanne and I share a philosophy when buying the products you buy from us. Frankly, we don’t look at the product until we look at the company who makes it. In any given year, you could possibly find a better quality or value on a particular item from a different vendor, and then next year, that perfect value would be on a different product or vendor. However, the best vendors are consistent in quality and value—and always right at the top. Add that to the ability of an excellent vendor to stand behind their products, maintain their parts, actually ship when they are needed, and maintain quality standards that we can trust.

We look first to American manufacturers, then to Canadian, then to Mexican. When there is no other reasonable alternative, we look off shore. We vastly prefer privately held companies where we can get on the phone, get to the top and get a problem solved immediately.

Thirty years ago, I drove to Massachusetts to pick up winter pool covers that were made right there. The owner helped me load them in my van. Over the years, he built his company into the largest pool cover company in the United States. Then covers and tubes started coming from Hong Kong, Brazil, and China. I have always carried their American made pool covers, until two years ago when they finally went out of business. My friend, the owner, committed suicide by jumping off the Mystic River Bridge When given the option, and as the price difference widened, 95% of our customers chose Chinese covers over the American covers. We showed everyone the samples and told them where the covers were made. Frankly, of the 5% who bought American covers, almost all bought the American cover because it was better, not because it was American.

On March 30th I found out that Ducane Gas Grills Inc., a family-operated 58-year old company just went bankrupt. In 2000, they invested in a brand new, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant to create more jobs making their grills in South Carolina. For thirty years, they had been the absolute leader in premium, high quality grills. However, retail prices on imported grills keep dropping. People think of grills as “throw-away” items instead of appliances worth keeping. The Ducate family just couldn’t keep up with the mega-companies and the payments on the new factory.

Webber bought Ducane out of bankruptcy, fired their distributors, and dropped Ducane’s warranties from lifetime on almost everything to three years on almost everything and lifetime only on the aluminum castings. The grill quality is still superb, the name is still the same, parts are still available the grill is still made in the U.S.A. (for now), but who knows what will happen in the future.

Are we fighting a loosing battle? Actually, the battle is already lost. That big patio furniture company was proud to announce their Chinese factory, because they were assuring us all, that they were going to stay in business. If consumers are not willing to pay a lot more for American made goods, then the American companies will go out of business and fire all their help. If they move half of their jobs to China, they still get to keep half of their jobs here. As professional buyers, Jeanne and I can’t even tell anymore how much of our product coming from an American factory has parts or components in it that were made somewhere else. If it is all imported, it is clearly marked, but if it is assembled here with parts from other countries, it is not marked.

Do I have a point of view? A solution? I wish I did. Certainly, we all have a much better lifestyle because we can afford goods that would be way too expensive made 100% in America. Every year, our store’s labor costs rise, our medical care is just outrageous, taxes go up, and gas and electricity goes up— everything except the prices that we charge you. It’s only the influence of imported products and components that keep inflation in check.

Does it matter? Not as long as people who lose manufacturing jobs can learn a new trade and get a decent job quickly. It does suggest that we should be giving our children a really good education if we expect them to be able to pay the taxes to support our generation’s Social Security and Medicare. They are not ever going to be able to get easy menial jobs for a good wage.

Jeanne and I will continue to try to keep American products in here. As far as using smaller companies, we’ll see. All of our industries are becoming dominated by giant companies buying up all of the others. Pentair already owns Pac-Fab, Purex, Triton, American, Kreepy Krauly, Rainbow, Letro, ComPool, Fiberworks and probably a few I’ve forgotten. Those aren’t just brands, they used to be companies. If the FTC lets them buy Sta Rite, Pentair will be manufacturing all of the top quality filters sold in North America. There are other filter companies, but their reputations are not on the same level as the companies that Pentair owns, or will.

Is this bad? I don’t know. I’m glad that we have been a direct customer of theirs for years. They make wonderful products. They stand behind them. They are just so big! There is one company (Biolab) that makes practically half of the pool  chemicals and another (SCP) that owns about half of the distributors. There’s just no more competition.

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