ARI SHAPIRO, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
It's easy to say that nothing is made in the USA anymore. So many things we use in our daily lives are made in China or elsewhere. We're going to shine a light this morning on a different reality: the National Association of Manufacturers says 286,000 firms make things here in the United States. NPR's Tamara Keith visited one of those companies: a California flashlight maker called Maglite.
TAMARA KEITH: These are the big heavy black metal flashlights that police officers use - and their smaller cousin the Mini Maglite. They're durable, simple, sleek, and made in Ontario, California.
Lynn Perry, head of customer service for Mag Instrument, says a lot of people are surprised by that.
Ms. LYNN PERRY (Customer Service, Mag Instrument): They're amazed that we're right here. People think that this product is coming from China.
KEITH: There's a reason people assume Maglites are made overseas. Making a mass-produced consumer good like this in Southern California defies prevailing business logic. So how, why, are they still here? Automation, bringing more and more production in-house, and having good patent attorneys is part of it. But really, it all comes down to the stubborn determination of one man: Anthony Tony Maglica.
Mr. ANTHONY TONY MAGLICA (Owner, Mag Instrument): I will not go out of the country if my life depends on it. There's no reason for it, really.
KEITH: Maglica is 79 years old and still comes to work every day, often before dawn.
(Soundbite of machinery)
KEITH: He walks the 700,000-square-foot factory floor, checking in on every detail of production.
Maglica was born into the Great Depression in New York, but he spent his formative years living in Croatia, surviving hunger and worse as World War II tore through Europe. When he returned to America and set out to start his own company, Maglica says he had just $125. What he's built is a multimillion dollar business, with more than 700 employees, and customers all over the world.
Over the years, Maglica has worked hard to bring more production in-house, to cut out the middle man and streamline operations. So the springs that go into the flashlights used to be made by another company. Now they're made here at the Mag facility in Ontario.
One thing that isn't made in the U.S. is the tiny bulb in the Mini Maglite -and that clearly drives Maglica crazy.
(Soundbite of machinery)
KEITH: In the early days, all Maglites were assembled by hand. Now much of the work is automated. Engineers here at Mag Instrument designed and built all of the sophisticated assembly systems, says Gus Hawthorne, director of engineering.
Mr. GUS HAWTHORNE (Director of Engineering, Mag Instrument): We have to be competitive price-wise. The only way that we can do that is to automate, and that's the key to our success.
KEITH: The company has never raised the wholesale price on the Maglite. Three decades later, they cost exactly what they did in 1979.
Ms. HAWTHORNE: Tony will be the first one to tell you that had this been a publicly owned company, they would have fired him. They would have thought he was nuts. Maybe he is for continuing to do it in this country when it's so difficult. But there's a lot of us in this company that are very thankful that he did that.
KEITH: Maglica says people tell him all the time he could make more money if he stopped insisting on making Maglites in the United States. And he knows they're right. He just doesn't care. What he cares about are his employees, who he describes as family.
Last year, as a result of the tough economy, Mag Instrument lost nearly $11 million. The company had to lay off 200 people. Tony Maglica says it was the saddest thing he ever had to do.
Mr. MAGLICA: Where are those people going to go? There's no jobs. If everybody will come and tell me, Tony, we all quit because we got a wonderful job, it would be a hell of a relief on me, 'cause I won't feel responsible.
KEITH: Maglica feels responsible for every one of his employees - how they're going to pay their mortgages, how they're going to pay for their kids to go to college. And it seems like more than anything, that's what drives him.
Maglica is nearly 80 years old. He refuses to talk about retirement, hasn't been on a vacation since the 1990s and is now working even longer days than normal as he designs a new product line himself.
Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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.