October 12, 2004
Using his experience in the manufacturing industry, Don Wainwright plans to help improve the U.S. manufacturing industry through his position as chairman of the Department of Commerce's newly created Manufacturing Council.
Manufacturing is not foreign to Don Wainwright.
At the helm of Wainwright Industries, a St. Peters, Mo.-based stamping and machining firm, since 1976, Wainwright got his start in manufacturing right out of college. A veteran of the industry, he now represents himself and fellow manufacturers as chairman of the newly created U.S. Commerce Department's Manufacturing Council.
With the council's first meeting behind him, Wainwright said he's ready to lead an effort to implement initiatives that will help the U.S. manufacturing industry remain strong in the face of recent challenges.
Considering recent manufacturing challenges, how has business been for Wainwright Industries?
I've been at Wainwright for 36 years, and I've never seen it so tough, and I've been through some pretty rough times. In those 36 years, I've been through seven or nine recessions, through what I call the '79 to '83 depression. I thought it was tough then, but this has been one of the toughest times I've ever seen.
How has Wainwright Industries survived the tough times?
Customers need more of a turnkey supplier now than they did in the past to do a broader array of engineering and types of manufacturing rather than just one particular specialty. You have to meet a lot of different needs, not only in the manufacturing area, but also in the service area.
Why did you want to get involved in the Manufacturing Council?
The president said we needed to have a manufacturing council that would allow regular communication between the government and the manufacturing sector. The council could undertake and advise the administration on the implementation of policy changes in the manufacturing report by going around the country and having different little council meetings to talk about what has to be done in a particular area, and then put that together on a national basis.
The council then would advise on policies and programs that affect the United States and how the Commerce Department is doing in implementing the study's recommended policy changes.
I realize the situation in manufacturing and the problems we're having, and I understand all the studies we've done. I've been involved in the National Association of Manufacturers, so I really understand the policy end of getting the proper environment, laws, and regulations implemented so that manufacturing can be competitive in the world.
It looked to me like an opportunity to help manufacturing survive; I had a chance to do something to help not only my country, but my livelihood, manufacturing.
I've heard plenty of fabricators say that they're not holding their breath for progress in the manufacturing industry resulting from government initiatives like the Manufacturing Council. What's your response to this opinion?
I hope they don't hold their breath. They ought to be out there doing something. If you're going to sit around and wait for something to happen, you're going to be sitting there a long time.
I liken the political process to the quality process. Quality isn't checked at the end of the line; quality starts at the beginning of the line. This is the same as legislation. People have to be aware. They have to be on top of what policies and legislative agendas are being pushed in Washington and where they are. They have to get involved in them early, help develop those policies, and help explain those policies to different legislative branches as they go through, trying to explain to them the need for this legislation. Then you end up getting a bill that helps manufacturing.
It's a long, arduous process, but as you keep this up through the years, you begin to get favorable legislation for manufacturing.
How much of an impact do you think this council will have on the manufacturing industry?
The voice of the Manufacturing Council is going to be heard not only by the administration, but also by the legislative branches of the government. That voice will continue to pound away at the issues that are important to manufacturing, and those issues will be out in front.
The Manufacturing Council will break down into subcommittees, and those subcommittees will put forth the agendas considered the most important, along with input from manufacturers from all over the country.
There will be three subcommittees: the U.S. work force, U.S. competitiveness, and advocacy and international trade. Those three subcommittees have subcommittees underneath them. They encompass everything that we need to take care of in the manufacturing industry.
How do you envision your role as the chairman of this council? What does this position mean to you?
As the chairman of the council, my role is to make sure we're meeting the agenda we've set forth for ourselves, to chair the meetings, and to keep everything organized and keep the communications between the council and the Commerce Department focused. My role is the facilitator.
What do you want to do to make this council successful in its mission?
I want to see manufacturing get a fair shake on a global basis. That's the one thing that's important to me—that we're playing on a level playing field—and I think we're starting to see that now. We're seeing that people understand what it takes to manufacture a product, the investment in the type of education it takes, the great work force it takes, and the help we all need to produce products the most efficiently and to be the low-cost producer.
What do your observations about the manufacturing industry tell you needs to be done to improve it?
From the standpoint of the council, we're going to look at what it takes to have an outstanding work force—we have one, we just need to make sure that that's the way it stays. We're going to look at what it takes to be competitive because we have to play in a global market. From a policy standpoint, we need to foster that internal competitive spirit. And we need to realize the importance and opportunities presented by globalization.
Those three things cover myriad things that need to be done to make U.S. manufacturing world-dominant again. I have no doubt we'll be right back on top again. I've been through this several times. This is just another change. America always stands up and meets the challenge.
Where do you see the manufacturing industry in the next five to 10 years?
I see a much improved manufacturing base. There will be some changes. For example, we'll have to change to meet the global challenge, which we'll do. The policies will change in Washington to help us do that, and it'll be just like it was when we had the last challenge. It took us a few years, but we met that challenge and more than overwhelmingly stood back on top again.
We were the premiere manufacturers through the '90s in the world. We still are, but we've got some new challenges from a cost standpoint. We just have to take some of the cost off of our back. Government regulations give us a 22 percent cost burden versus the rest of the world now, so we're carrying that on our back besides trying to compete, and that's pretty tough. We need some changes there, and that's one of the things we're working on.