AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Yesterday, we met Denis Gagnon, who bought the hand dryer company, Excel, about 15 years ago and turned it into a hand drying pioneer. Under his leadership, the company came out with the Xlerator.
(SOUNDBITE OF A HAND DRYER)
SIEGEL: It's a high-speed dry air hand dryer that cut the time it takes to dry your hands from over 30 seconds to under 15.
(SOUNDBITE OF A HAND DRYER)
SIEGEL: It's assembled at a plant in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. And the fact that it's made in the USA certified - meaning at least 75 percent of it is U.S. content - is important to Denis Gagnon. The foundries that cast most of its components are American. The control boards are assembled locally. They polish the covers and do their own electroplating in-house.
DENIS GAGNON: So there - oh, there you go. You see?
SIEGEL: The blue copper sulfate coming off of it, right?
SIEGEL: And in teams of four, they build the components into a working dryer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
SIEGEL: Today, Excel sales are 12 times what they were before the company started making the Xlerator. So here's the question raised by Denis Gagnon's real-life success story of how his entrepreneurship kept nearly 40 manufacturing jobs in this country through some very creative R&D, including a shop of retired MIT scientists, who turned from cutting edge questions to inventing things like an emergency flashlight, an automated shower, a system for self-dosing sun block and even a putter with an enlarged sweet spot.
Why? Why is the motor inside the Xlerator, at the heart of its operation, part of the 25 percent that is not made in the U.S.? Why does it come from a company in Hong Kong? I asked Dennis Gagnon.
GAGNON: What we need to do to be cost effective is to source a motor that's used in more than one industry and then tailor-make a couple of adjustments to make it fit our product. That's the only way we can cost effectively do it.
SIEGEL: And that's just the way life is. I mean, obviously, it's important to you, in describing the company, to say these components are made in the United States.
GAGNON: We're very proud to say that.
SIEGEL: Obviously proud of that. But it still checks out that when it comes time to buy the motor, the right motor is made in Hong Kong.
SIEGEL: The company that makes the Xlerator's motor has a very American-sounding name - Johnson Electric - and it has an office in Shelton, Connecticut. But it is very much an Asian company that's traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. And in the world of small motors, it is a big, big player. According to Johnson Electric's website, the company makes motors for kitchen appliances, hair dryers, toothbrushes, power tools, printers, DVD players, copiers and vending machines. For cars, they make door locks, mirrors, wipers, washers, brakes, radiator fans and fuel pumps.
Dennis Gagnon employs 38 people on the factory floor. According to the 2012 annual report, Johnson Electric's global headcount, including contract employees, is approximately 38,000 people. With a small business, Denis Gagnon's best deal was getting Johnson Electric to adapt one of its many motors to meet the Xlerator's specs.
GAGNON: Tooling up a special motor for Xlerator when we didn't know if we even had a product was kind of out of the question at the time, and we settled in on a high-volume motor that they could make adaptations to. And frankly, that turned out to be a very, very good decision.
SIEGEL: OK, let's look at the other extreme. You know, you're very proudly a made-in-America company, but what if, say, labor costs and some infrastructure checked out to move much of what you do here to China instead? Can you imagine the bottom line saying, we'd make more?
GAGNON: Not my attitude, never happen on my watch. I've expanded this facility twice. I have no intention of ever relocating the manufacturing offshore. We'll be smart enough to make it here in the United States.
SIEGEL: So what is it about Johnson Electric of Hong Kong? Well, Alex Chausovsky follows motors and mechanical power transmission for the market intelligence firm IHS. How important a company, how big a company is this Johnson Electric?
ALEX CHAUSOVSKY: Johnson Electric is a - one of the two major players in the non-industrial motors market. Besides Johnson Electric, one of the major suppliers is Mabuchi, which is located in Japan. But I would say most of the motors used in consumer appliances - power tools, electronics, anything purchased by the consumer - are typically manufactured in Asia.
SIEGEL: Why? Why is it that, say, a small motor should logically be made in Asia?
CHAUSOVSKY: I think the main reason why it's manufactured in Asia is the pure economies of scale and low cost of production that that region continues to offer. These companies, Johnson Electric and Mabuchi, both make an excess of a million motors per day. And as a result, they can really capitalize on economies of scale, allowing them to keep the selling prices of these motors as low as possible.
SIEGEL: So there just aren't that many companies that are making that many things that have motors in them to be able to manufacture a motor on their own.
CHAUSOVSKY: Well, that's exactly right. There are many companies that manufacture the actual end equipment: the microwaves, hairdryers, cell phone, the little vibration motors that are located in each device or the motors that's been your computer hard disk drive. Most of that equipment is also manufactured in Asia, and so it makes perfect sense that the demand will be driving local production of those components.
SIEGEL: How important is the difference in labor cost in East Asia and the United States in determining that this business should have relocated there?
CHAUSOVSKY: Well, I think labor cost is certainly a critical factor. They are less critical today than they were five or 10 years ago. But the fact that many years ago labor costs were significantly lower allowed them to establish those economies of scale, which continued to make sense to manufacture those products in that region.
SIEGEL: Well, is the lesson there that if manufacturing jobs go overseas and the manufacturers overseas are smart, there's not much chance of them coming back here?
CHAUSOVSKY: I think, to an extent, yes, although over the last few years, we certainly have seen a trend to bring back the manufacturing to more local sources. As the competitive advantage of the Chinese labor costs has been eroded away, it makes more sense for companies to manufacture in places like Mexico, for example, to serve the U.S. and Canadian markets, places like Poland or Czech Republic to serve German, French and Spanish markets.
Even within Asia, you've seen a substantial shift from China to other developing countries - Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia - because the labor costs there have not seen nearly the dramatic rises that have been witnessed in China.
SIEGEL: Well, Alex Chausovsky of IHS, thanks for talking with us about this.
CHAUSOVSKY: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: By the way, we wondered why is a company founded in Hong Kong called Johnson Electric. According to a 1988 article in Forbes Magazine, the founder, Wang Seng Liang, was originally from Shanghai. Then he went to Hong Kong, and before motors, his business there was textiles. His chain of tailors was called Make an Inch which, as demonstrated by Google Translate, is, in Mandarin...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
SIEGEL: ...which Mr. Wang transliterated to an English name that sounded close to...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.