By ADAM DAVIDSON
NY Times: June 18, 2013
As I toured Israel Kirschner’s Bronx paintbrush factory earlier this month, I couldn’t stop feeling amazed that it was still in business. Many days, Kirschner feels the same way. The charming, energetic 69-year-old joked about his ancient equipment (“That could be 100 years old,” he said of a bristle-cleaning machine); his two least-committed employees, his son and daughter (“They come late, they leave early”); and how his business has been increasingly undercut by Chinese manufacturers. After introducing me to his star brush maker, Fermin Gil, a Mexican immigrant who “can just see” when a brush isn’t right, Kirschner handed me a one-inch boar-bristle brush with a wooden handle. A Chinese manufacturer sells it for 30 cents. If he made it himself, he told me, it would cost significantly more.
Chinese manufacturers long ago wreaked havoc on the U.S. textile, apparel, toy and electronics industries, but the disruption came slowly to the brush business. There are simply so many types of brushes for so many applications that many Chinese manufacturers thought the business wasn’t worth the hassle. For decades, China lagged behind in the main categories (toothbrushes, brooms, mops and, of course, paintbrushes) and only dominated the lowest rung of the business — extracting bristles from boars. “It’s dirty, smelly, foul work,” David Parr, executive director of the American Brush Manufacturers Association, told me. “Nobody wants to go to West Texas to try to catch a boar and figure out how to get the bristles off him.”
The collapse of the housing market in 2007 and the subsequent recession turned out to be a boon for China’s brush exports. With far less construction and far fewer jobs, not as many people needed paintbrushes (or brooms or toothbrushes). Those who did need them chose cheap imports over more expensive products made in America. Retailers, who stood to make more from the cheaper products, jumped at the opportunity to sell them. Now everyone in the business has to account for the Chinese.
That’s a familiar story for U. S. manufacturing. The strange thing here is that there are still more than 200 brush, broom and mop makers in the U.S. These companies have employed two strategies to stave off Chinese competition: 1) change everything all the time, or 2) don’t ever change a thing. Kirschner hasn’t changed a thing. He makes brushes the very same way, employing many of the same machines, that his father did 50 years ago. He told me that he sticks with the old ways because, unlike with toys and T-shirts, a big chunk of the brush business caters to professionals who aren’t merely shopping for price but rather for quality. Michael Wolf, who runs the Greco Brush Company, a supplier to professional house painters, told me that his customers need to know before each job that every single bristle on every single brush will be attached properly. One loose fiber left on a wall can damage a painter’s reputation, which in turn can hurt Wolf’s too. Wolf said that he can buy brushes for between a quarter and a dollar cheaper in China, but he is never sure exactly what he’ll get. Some orders are shoddy; others never arrive. So Greco sticks with the company he knows. “My father did business with his father back in the ’50s,” Wolf told me. “We’re keeping it going, the two of us.”
At the other end of the business is Lance Cheney, 53, the fourth-generation president of Braun Brush, who told me that he would close his company rather than make the same kind of brush, the same way, for 50 years. He is constantly creating innovative brushes so that he never has any competition. Cheney makes a beaver-hair brush that’s solely for putting a sheen on chocolate. He sells an industrial croissant-buttering brush and a heat-resistant brush that can clean hot deep fryers. His clients, he said, now include General Mills (he made a brush for their cereal-manufacturing line) and the energy industry (a line of expensive brushes for cleaning pipes in nuclear reactors). He even developed Brush Tile, fuzzy panels used in artistic wall hangings. He said his proudest creation is a tiny brush that helped Mars rovers dust debris from drilling sites. When Cheney sees other firms making one of his brushes, he often drops the product rather than enter a price war. Braun Brush, he said, has grown at 15 to 20 percent annually for the past five years.
Kirschner’s don’t-change-a-thing strategy has not brought anything like this kind of growth. Last year, he says, “was a disaster.” As was this spring. But June, so far, has been “unbelievably good.” Many of his customers are governmental agencies that prefer “Made in the U.S.A.” products or have precise needs that Chinese imports can’t yet fill. Some of the paint on New York City subways and Texas prisons, for example, was applied by Kirschner brushes.
As I walked through the Kirschner Brush Manufacturing Company factory, I began to think — despite all the doom-and-gloom stories — about just how many similar companies are still plugging along this way in the U.S. There are still more than 200,000 small factories, like Kirschner’s, that provide a solid, if rarely heralded, base line of American business. (At last count, there were 139 brush, broom and mop makers in the country with fewer than 20 employees.) Many of them do things the old way, using old machines (paid off long ago) in old factories, holding on to customers by serving some tiny niche. I recently met a man in Pennsylvania who has a decent business making metal hooks for paint cans using a 50-year-old monstrosity of a machine. In Jamestown, N.Y., I visited a factory that makes metal exhaust hoods for laboratories. The owner, who was in semi-retirement, told me that he would never start such a business today but that because he already had the building, the machines and the workers, he could reasonably turn a profit.
In a sense, the competitive advantage of these companies is that they are not all that ambitious. It’s a strategy that we also sometimes see with various service providers, like tax accountants who are able to find enough customers who don’t like using Turbo Tax and don’t want to pay some big firm, or realtors who have been in a neighborhood forever and don’t use the hard-sell approach of younger brokers. Of course, this isn’t the sexiest strategy, and these businesses rarely expand and are unlikely to help the economy grow. And every year a few drop by the wayside.
Our economy used to be built around Kirschners. Typical factories made money by reliably producing the same standard suite of products year in, year out. This provided stability to owners, workers, customers. Very quickly, though, America has become a nation of Brauns — one in which a product faces extinction, or a rebooting, shortly after it is unveiled. This flexible economy has many advantages. It brings a lot more wealth to those who do it right; over time, it should deliver more economic growth. But it also destroys much of the stability and predictability to which Americans had grown accustomed. These days, nearly every competitor in every field senses that one day, out of the blue, the entire logic of its economic value will be overturned by events it can’t foresee or control. In this world, there are winners, like Cheney. But it is nice to see that someone like Kirschner is still able, despite a fair bit of hand-wringing, to maintain an ancient niche in this new age.