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America doesn't want my business

I want to start making some of my products in America again, as I did for years. With unemployment at a near 30-year high, and the domestically-made percentage of goods in my industry a mere rounding error, one would assume that the surviving U.S. factories would be clamoring for the work. There are still quite a few shops set up to do what we need, and we've all but thrown ourselves at them. But apparently America doesn't want my business.

China currently owns most of our industry and is still, of course, the low cost provider (though it often gets more of a bum rap than it deserves). But recent labor, material and shipping cost increases and exchange rate issues have narrowed China's advantage, and for those and other reasons I think the time is right for us. Our products are not mass market, and we are fortunate that our customers are willing to pay a bit more for what we make. So we're ready, able and eager to at least give it a shot.

We used to sew bags in our own shop here in upstate New York, so I know exactly what's involved, and as you might imagine, it's not rocket science. In fact, I have considered opening a small sewing operation again, but for a variety of reasons would prefer to partner up with one. So I've tried, for about a year, to find that partner and bring some work back home. I've contacted a dozen possible suppliers and gotten nowhere. Why? Here are just a few of the dead ends:

- The supplier is "unable" to do the work. As I wrote here recently, I think "can't" is a dirty word. But most of the prospects we've spoken to use it liberally: "We can't find those materials"... "We can't make it look that nice"... "We can't do that kind of detail work." When I encourage them to give it a try, even tell them we'll tweak the designs to suit their production, I get "Geez, I just don't think we can do this..."

- The supplier is worried about cost, even when I'm not. Rather than leading with enthusiasm for the prospect of a new customer, most of the factories I've spoken to have started the conversation by saying they can't compete with imports. I tell them I am well aware of that, and that -- though price does matter -- I would be happy to pay what I believe to be the current "domestic differential." There are no guarantees that the costing will work out, of course. But despite my encouragement and willingness to pay, more times than not, the response is that they don't even want to try.

- The supplier is unresponsive. We've found a few shops claiming to be able to do the work, and claiming to be eager to try. We sent them prototypes and specifications and they promised quick turnaround on quotes and samples, only to vanish for weeks, or forever. If I send designs to Asia, I get pricing and beautiful samples in days. Say what you will about "offshoring," but quality factories overseas are hungry to win business, they work hard to do so, and they keep promises. If, as in our case, price is not the top priority, how can a domestic factory expect to compete when it can't even maintain basic business and service standards?

- The supplier gets cold feet. There was one factory, well-known and respected in the industry, with which I actually came very close. In fact, so close that we gave them a very large (for us) purchase order, and I signed it with a huge smile on my face. They accepted it, and I started counting the days until we could tell people we were making bags in America again. Two days later, I got a call from the factory rep saying his boss wanted to cancel the order. Why? Because he was "too nervous" (his words) about making our stuff the way they said they could for the prices they quoted. This company -- with decades of experience -- by its own admission, simply got cold feet.

Of course every industry has its own issues and challenges, but these general issues are not unique to my business. I think that America has more opportunities than you might be led to believe, but is often its own worst enemy, having lost so much of the inspiration, ingenuity, tenacity and enthusiasm that got it this far.

It's beyond frustrating. We all hear, every day, various iterations of the "America is sending jobs overseas" complaint. In some cases that's true, and some jobs and industries aren't going to come back. Yet here I am, a small business owner, trying to do his small part to hang the flag in some products again, and America doesn't even want to give it a shot. I'm not giving up, but I am disappointed and disheartened.

Like life, business isn't always fair. But when opportunity knocks and we don't even try to answer the door, we have only ourselves to blame.

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