How an Ohio Fire Truck Company Explains Globalization

For 125 years, some small portion of America’s fire trucks have come from Columbus, Ohio. Family-owned Sutphen Corp. produced shining red masses of steel and aluminum, loaded with ladders and tanks, the kind of vehicle that towns buy as a promise to keep citizens safe.

But when the recession hit in 2008, Sutphen knew that the United States wouldn’t be enough.

“We saw that we were totally dependent on the U.S. economy, especially municipal funding,” said Ken Creese, the company’s director of sales and marketing. Sutphen’s orders had dropped by some 40 percent, and they were starting to lay people off. They needed new markets, stat.

To find them, the company looked to a country better known for selling stuff to America rather than buying it: China. They hired a vice president for international relations, began responding to solicitations by local governments, and quickly started filling orders. Now, about 11 percent of the 250 trucks Sutphen makes per year sell overseas — not only in China, but Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. Just last week, the company signed a $3.8 million deal with a Chinese fire department.

“It’s a major part of our growth strategy,” Creese says. “We know that if we’re going to be around for the next 100 years, we’re going to have to be more global. You don’t globalize the business, there’s probably no chance.”

Sutphen’s story sums up exactly what the Obama administration wants us to believe can happen everywhere in America, even in towns like Columbus, where manufacturing has long ebbed away overseas or to cheaper states in the South.

In part to boost exports, the Obama administration is pushing a massive trade deal — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — with 11 countries on the Pacific Rim. Without support for exports, the argument goes, America risks losing even more jobs when barriers to investment in places like Chile and Malaysia are town down.

The issue has taken on greater urgency lately, as getting the deal done has become a top priority and rare area of agreement for President Obama and Republicans in Congress. So at news conferences and conventions and op-eds, administration officials and business associations trot out plucky little companies who’ve done it successfully, to demonstrate that it’s not just multinational companies packing those container ships.

“We’re not talking about mom and pop on the main street that are being taken care of,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), on a news media call with a collection of small businesses in a “pre-buttal” to the trade talk in the president’s State of the Union address. “I think the thing about this trade deal has been that it lowers the bar for the American people, so we’re competing with 50 cents an hour wages in Vietnam.”

So who’s right?

Both, kind of. Trade agreements have allowed some American companies to sell more overseas. But imports usually grow much faster, which means that other companies can’t compete.

That might keep happening anyway, though — which means it’s worth thinking about how people who still make stuff in America can sell it around the world.

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