RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep in Detroit. We're inside the Detroit Institute of Arts with NPR's Don Gonyea. Don, welcome to the program.
DON GONYEA: Hi, Steve, and welcome to my home state.
INSKEEP: Thanks very much. Don is a Michigander, and he has brought us here at the beginning of this series about Detroit's economy, Michigan's economy, because he wanted to show me something that he says symbolizes what this economy was, what it has been. And what are we about to go around the corner and look at, Don?
GONYEA: We are going to see the Detroit industry frescos painted by the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera that depict life in the automobile plants of the 1920s and '30s.
INSKEEP: Wow. This is - we are looking in this huge room at murals that cover every open space on the walls, on all four walls.
GONYEA: They are removing a chassis from the assembly line; you see steering wheels, you see body work overhead, the blast furnace is there, the workers, the muscles you can see. These murals speak to the city's history. They also speak to the future that was ahead of this city, a great industrial power.
INSKEEP: But now that the auto firms are struggling and unemployment in Michigan is 12.6 percent, we're asking how Michigan diversifies. We are asking who's betting on the hardest-hit economy in the nation, who's investing, who's hiring. and we began with a business in Don Gonyea's hometown.
(Soundbite of train)
GONYEA: It's by the railroad tracks in Monroe, Michigan, outside Detroit. Like all the firms we're going to hear about this week, it is a much smaller operation than the auto plant in those murals. Instead of cars that run on oil, workers here make a product that moves water. Robert Oklejas of Pump Engineering watches his employees work at metal lathes.
(Soundbite of machine)
INSKEEP: They're spinning stainless steel cylinders, shaving them to size for a custom-made water pump.
Mr. ROBERT OKLEJAS (Pump Engineering): And most of what you see here is exported, like that unit is going to Saudi Arabia.
INSKEEP: These high-efficiency pumps help to create fresh water. Desalination plants, as they're called, push ocean water through filters, so it can grow the crops or fill the glasses of increasingly thirsty nations.
Mr. R. OKLEJAS: Pakistan, India, North Africa, Algeria's going to be a big customer, Spain.
INSKEEP: Here's one product that Americans are still selling to the world and Pump Engineering's competitors include another firm in Monroe, Michigan, which happens to be run by Robert Oklejas' own brother.
Mr. ELI OKLEJAS (Pump Engineering): We sell directly to the local system builders in Saudi Arabia, UAE, India, Spain.
INSKEEP: If it sounds like Eli Oklejas serves the same markets with similar products, that's true. The brothers both decorated their conference rooms with nearly identical, floor-to-ceiling wall maps of the world. Their competition leads to one big question.
INSKEEP: Is Thanksgiving awkward?
Mr. R. OKLEJAS: Uhm…
INSKEEP: Robert Oklejas says they don't see much of each other, which wasn't always the case. The brothers grew up together. They went into business together. After a business disagreement, the brothers split into rival firms. And both companies are still growing, still hiring in a recession. People can put off buying a car, but they still need water.
Mr. R. OKLEJAS: At one time, we lost employees to the automobile industry. They would - they'd go through their apprenticeship here, off to Ford or GM they went. Well, over the last two or three years, they've been coming back to us. I think they're really appreciative of having a job.
INSKEEP: Robert Oklejas' company has a bell on the wall, which used to ring after every sale.
Mr. R. OKLEJAS: I suppose if we get a really large sale, we can ring it again.
INSKEEP: You mean, you don't ring it very often anymore? You don't bother…
Mr. R. OKLEJAS: Well, it's just like they're so routine now. Twenty years ago, we got one sale a month, we were very happy. But now - we get them every day now.
Mr. R. OKLEJAS: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
INSKEEP: Officials here in Michigan know they need to grow countless firms like this. Pump Engineering may be succeeding, but it still employs only 38 people. We spoke with Jim Epolito, who just finished three and a half years as head of economic development for the state.
Mr. JIM EPOLITO (Michigan Economic Development Corporation): We were managing an auto industry that continued to decline. So when we added a thousand jobs in the life sciences or 5,000 jobs in another sector of the economy, we would get an announcement around that same time that General Motors was laying off 10,000 jobs, or over 20,000 jobs.
INSKEEP: GM is making even more layoffs just this week. The state will keep losing that race to increase its employment until it finds even more new employers - although the Oklejas brothers helped, in a way, by creating two firms instead of one.
What's it like to be hiring when everybody else has been firing?
Mr. E. OKLEJAS: It feels good. People are happy to come to work, and that's a nice feeling.
INSKEEP: So nice that Eli is expanding his company's building.
Mr. E. OKLEJAS: Just started it last - a few months ago, actually.
INSKEEP: It's like we're in a Wal-Mart here. This is a lot of space.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. E. OKLEJAS: Yeah, it does have that look to it, yeah.
INSKEEP: Which is one more thing about doing business in Michigan's recession: Commercial real estate is really, really cheap.
We're reporting this week on retooling Detroit. And tomorrow, we'll meet a man who bet his home on his new company. If you want to see what the Michigan economy was, you can find those Diego Rivera murals of the auto industry. They're at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.