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And now, let's get down to basics. When you brush your hair or your teeth this morning, take a look at the technology in your hand. The brush is so simple, you might not even think of it as technology - flexible fibers sticking out of a handle. And because it's cheap to make, China has grabbed much of the market in making brushes. But in the United States, several hundred small brush factories are hanging on. Marianne McCune, of NPR's Planet Money team, reports on some of the tricks they use to survive.
MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: In an old-fashioned factory building in the South Bronx, Izzy Kirschner's half a dozen employees are making paintbrushes. They're stuffing bristles from slaughtered boars into metal casings. They're doing it with their hands, and machines that once belonged to Kirschner's dad. But unlike his dad, these guys try to make every brush perfect.
IZZY KIRSCHNER: My father was more interested in mass production.
IZZY KIRSCHNER: Efficiency, OK.
MCCUNE: When Kirschner took over the business about 15 years ago, he saw you couldn't make it if your brush bristles came out in the paint. With China making brushes more efficiently than he ever could, he learned he had to live by survival strategy No. 1: Produce quality, not quantity, because you can't compete with China on price.
IZZY KIRSCHNER: Once you try to do that, you're in trouble.
MCCUNE: Instead, sell a brush that paints beautifully, to professional painters. And give them exactly what they want. That's survival tip No. 2: Adapt to what your customers want. For example, Kirschner makes a specialized brush called the Man-Helper, used to paint the Triborough Bridge. He finds niche markets, and there are plenty of niche markets out there. Another brush maker taking advantage of them: Lance Cheney, out of Long Island.
LANCE CHENEY: We're making brushes now for the top of the Freedom Tower, to keep pigeons out.
MCCUNE: That's a $40,000 brush. Cheney is the fourth-generation owner of Braun Brush, another little factory with a lot of know-how. Braun Brush made a tiny brush for NASA, for the Mars Rover; to sweep away the Martian dirt.
CHENEY: Every day, there's another application that surprises me.
MCCUNE: Though Cheney's made a name with high-tech brushes, his factory includes machines passed down from his great-grandfather. And some employees are nearly that old, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SNIPPING)
MCCUNE: A man who's been here 51 years uses scissors to snip the ends off a roller brush, used to clean Shea Stadium. The plant manager, Adam Czarnowski, has been with the company 63 years.
ADAM CZARNOWSKI: We are not ordinary brush makers. We are problem solvers.
CHENEY: That's the key to being able to manufacture in this country. If you have a machine that spits out all of the same thing over and over and over and over again, that's ripe for China. For us, the machine has to be able to be extremely flexible. So it's still automation, but I'm going to make one brush in the morning, another brush between the lunch and the break, and then a completely different brush the rest of the day - on the same piece of equipment.
MCCUNE: Then you can set prices based on perceived value, he says; not how much the bristle and block cost, but how much time and effort went into it, and how much it's worth to the customer.
Do you make any products the cheapest way they can be made?
MCCUNE: So high standards and customized products, two strategies that have kept these brush makers in business. And there's a third vital ingredient for both: relationships. They both have loyal customers. But this is where the two brush makers differ. While Cheney keeps building relationships with the next generation, many of Kirschner's clients are from the past. Kirschner's daughter Debra says they love her dad because he's a constant.
DEBRA KIRSCHNER: They can all get my dad on the phone and that's just like, not how businesses are run anymore.
MCCUNE: But what happens when Kirschner, who's 69, and some of his customers start to retire?
DEBRA KIRSCHNER: I do think that there's probably a little bit of danger in that because it's like there's a lot of loyalty and yeah, that dies out with people and companies.
IZZY KIRSCHNER: There's days where the business feels like it's worth $50 million. And there's days where it feels like it's worth two cents.
MCCUNE: One day soon, Kirschner wants to sell the business. He just needs to find someone who cares as much as he does.
Marianne McCune, NPR News, New York.
INSKEEP: On MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.
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