For example, the American Quilter’s Society is listed alongside Dippin’ Dots on a list of manufacturers in Kentucky updated July 11 by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. The pair of local employers are two of 2,463 manufacturing facilities in the commonwealth employing 220,667, according to the cabinet.
What isn’t vague is how unkind the open market has been to the state’s manufacturing industry. Through April, Kentucky had lost 82,800 manufacturing jobs compared to April 2001, according to an analysis by The Business Journals.
Since April, the state has added 12,767 jobs to the industry, but a reminder of how quickly the jobs can leave came in July just over the state line in Union City, Tenn.
The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. closed its plant July 12 eliminating 1,900 jobs with a sizable chunk of those belonging to residents in Graves, Fulton and Hickman counties.
News of the Goodyear plant close brought back memories of the Continental General Tire Plant in Mayfield ending tire production in 2004 and later halting all warehousing operations.
“It’s tough seeing companies move out of the state,” said Robert Baker, president of tobacco exporter Campbell Tobacco Rehandling in Mayfield. Baker serves as a regional director for the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers.
At the association’s quarterly meetings, employment training, union and company relations and business taxes are frequent topics as companies plan for surviving and thriving in the future. “We need more skilled workers,” Baker said. “I think west Kentucky should be booming.”
In tobacco farming, Baker has watched mom-and-pop operations fall by the wayside as larger producers and exporters merge and others move out of the state.
Though that trend in the region may not be as pronounced in all types of manufacturing, the ability for thriving mom-and-pop operations to breathe life into the economy is at the heart of a new state program.
Budding manufacturers trying to expand on a good idea are the focus of a federally-funded initiative already working closely with 15 startups in Kentucky.
Make It Kentucky
In February, several state agencies landed a federal grant to establish Make It Kentucky. The program seeks to assist Kentucky manufacturers in developing new products, increase competitiveness and foster growth of high-tech entrepreneurial companies.
“It’s to help (businesses) get beyond whatever hurdles they have,” said Beth Ward, assistant director of the Regional Business and Innovation Center at Murray State University. Ward said she serves as a liaison between west Kentucky manufacturers and a trio of industry veterans available to help.
The three work with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, which teamed with the local Innovation and Commercialization Center at the RBIC at MSU for the program. They are Rick Johnson, a design engineer who has run two electronic manufacturing companies, Ben Jennings, a former analyst and consultant at Norton Healthcare in Louisville, and Scott Broughton, a product developer who has overseen the design of more than 50 new and improved products for various markets.
Ward contributes with her more than 20 years of business experience in manufacturing.
The services start with an in-depth consultation after which Make It Kentucky team members deploy the one or two with the most relevant experience to fit what a budding company needs most. Rick Johnson said if a company needs help with sales and general management, he can help using his background overseeing two manufacturing companies. If a local manufacturer has questions about legal filings and financial fine print, Jennings can step in and help, Johnson said.
“The one thing there is no shortage of in western Kentucky is smart people with good ideas,” Rick Johnson said by phone in Lexington. “But that person sometimes needs help. ... Some of these people have never had to manage anyone.”
Johnson said the program is free but selective.
• Must be a Kentucky-based company.
• Bring in at least $50,000 in annual revenue.
• Employ at least four people.
• Be classified within one of the accepted manufacturing codes NAICS 31-33.
Johnson said since February somewhere between 50 and 100 companies have talked about Make It Kentucky with the team.
He said 15 qualified for and agreed to the program’s services.
Four of those are in far western Kentucky. One is AC Plus Marine in Kevil where Cyndie and Chuck Phillipe manufacture large saturation diving systems used to repair oil derricks.
Another is Trigg Trike Kits in Cadiz, which produces patented kits for motorcycles that add two stabilizing wheels to the rear end.
Owners David and Lanell Bell fit the Make It Kentucky mold. Since David Bell first designed his trike kit for a family member in 2002, the Bells have jumped into the business employing up to seven shop workers and sending the product abroad.
And that is after careers in unrelated fields. “I’m just a plain old teacher, and he (David) is just a plain old working man,” Lanell said. David is a former Coca-Cola plant worker of 32 years. “We’re pretty proud of being able to get two patents and a trademark,” she said. “We have no business background.”
How it’s helped
Bell said that either she, David or their son Jerett Bell (who is the company’s salesman), sits in on a weekly teleconference with someone from Make It Kentucky.
Johnson and company are still reviewing how they can help Trigg Trike Kits most effectively.
“They’re doing a financial review and helping us with the website,” Bell said. “Every aspect that you could think of in growing a business they have talked about and given us ideas.”
It was two years ago when the Bells moved their trike operation from a home garage hobby to a full-time business with a shop in Trigg County.
The Trigg Trike Kit is an attachment to motorcycles that can be removed. Its two additional wheels appeal to a rider wanting a smoother ride, or one that can use the extra control, such as an aging or physically-disabled rider. The Bells have custom-built kits for wounded veterans.
Adding the shop meant adding employees, and more sales to foreign customers all brought on more managerial and business fine points that Bell admits can be overwhelming at times.
She and David recalled when $500 was added to a shipping order to Canada simply because they labeled the product as a kit, not a unit as Canadian authorities prefer. The description prompted a search at the border that called for the fee.
It’s those situations, and more unforeseen problems, with which Bell hopes Make It Kentucky will help.
And it’s growing, Kentucky-owned companies such as Trigg Trike Kits that Johnson hopes will agree to help from the program.
“The real goal is to help create jobs and we’ve gotten good traction,” Johnson said.
By the numbers
2,463 — Number of manufacturing facilities in Kentucky.
2,675 — Manufacturing jobs in Paducah.
82,800 — Kentucky manufacturing jobs lost from April 2001 to April 2011.
220,667 — Full-time manufacturing jobs in Kentucky.
*Source: Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development report from July 11