Manufacturing in the USA

by Julie, Inglenook Tile co-owner

Last night, before sleep, I began thinking about all the changes we have weathered with our small, growing company. When we started Inglenook Tile Design about five years ago, our original business plan was to use my experience in design and product development to manufacture our tiles in Asia.

I didn’t expect, however, that the factories wouldn’t understand why we wanted our tiles to look old. It was very difficult to communicate that we wanted a random, rustic look, with no two tiles being exactly the same. Our factory wanted to make products that look exactly the same – it is a sign of consistency and quality for them in a country where “new-looking” is synonymous with “modernity.” However, a uniform, modern look was exactly what we did not want. The search for a factory who could reliably create the antique look we wanted dragged on.

Frustrated by the slow progress, we turned to the Veteran’s Industries in Myerstown, PA. It was a sheltered work program for veterans from the Lebanon Veteran’s Hospital. We trained the veterans to make our tiles, and they were supervised by the facility manager, Dave, whose commitment to us and our products grew into a great friendship and boon to our company.

In 2005, when the government unexpectedly closed the workshop, we were forced to make other plans and move to our own warehouse space. The husband of one of our former employees from the doll company (our first company) owned a warehouse, so we signed a lease for a corner of it and moved into the echoing, unheated space.

Meanwhile, some Chinese friends found us a factory in Asia. We visited, trained the factory, provided them with molds, and began to import. The factory did a beautiful job, but we noticed several problems: first, it was hard to anticipate what to order ten to twelve weeks before the shipment would arrive. Would we need 4×8” tiles or 2×8” tiles? In what proportion would we mix the order? The factory only made a narrow range of products–if customers wanted special color variations, we had to make them ourselves. As a result, we found ourselves making more and more tiles in our chilly warehouse, bundled in overcoats, and standing in front of an anemic heat dish. The other problems arose, most prominently rising Chinese labor costs and high ocean freight costs. We realized that our manufacturing needed to come back to the US.

A couple of years ago, we brought everything back to our Pennsylvania warehouse. We enlarged the space, added insulation, and built out an office and break room space. Due to our positive experience with the Lebanon VA, we turned to the Coatesville Veteran’s Hospital for workers and contracted with their Work Restoration Program. (Read more)

Our relationship with this VA program and with our vets has been a great blessing and allowed our company to grow with the increasing demand for our brick tiles. This week, we were pleased to hire Billy, who has worked with us for 6 months through the VA and just graduated from their program, as our own full-time employee. We continue to expanding our workspace, buy new equipment, and hire more people as several of our past blog entries have chronicled.

I am a believer in the world community and global trade. That being said, when you see “buy American” slogans, it may or may not mean anything to you – but it has new meaning for me. As I tallied up who we are helping to support with our American-made tiles, I was amazed. One small business has such a far-reaching impact on other local businesses and individuals! For example, we make a difference to our friend/landlords by leasing space from them. Our business helps support US-based box companies, kiln and clay companies, and warehouse equipment suppliers. Even the local hardware store, where we buy paint for our warehouse floor, feels the impact of our decision to manufacture in Kinzers, PA. Then, there are utility companies, electricians, our employees, our veteran workers from the VA Hospital, and our driver, Heather, who takes them home. There are office supply stores, print shops and trade show promoters. As I thought through the list, the breadth of the others we touch by manufacturing our tiles surprised and inspired me.

Until I was thinking alone in a quiet room last night, I never realized how many people are benefiting from this one little company, nestled in a corner of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I went to sleep, proud to be paying our bills and sharing our prosperity with our neighbors.

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