NJMEP chief: Manufacturers must fight industry’s flagging reputation

The manufacturing industry is in need of CPR from a marketing and legislative standpoint.

But not because it is failing or dead — as is the common perception. Rather, New Jersey’s manufacturing companies are healthy and growing, according to John Kennedy, CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program.

It’s just that no one knows about it.

“I had one (legislator) tell me they have no manufacturing in their district. I pulled out a chart and said, ‘You have 405.’ It was a stunning revelation,” Kennedy said.

But he gives kudos because the revelations have led to more interest in being on the recently created bipartisan Manufacturing Caucus.

It’s long overdue, Kennedy said, adding that, in at least 30 years, there has been no new legislation or attention to the industry, despite the significant changes it has gone through.

“Think of any other industry that has $50 billion-plus and 360,000 workers that would get ignored,” Kennedy said.

“It’s not a story,” he said. “What was the story after (Hurricane) Sandy? Restaurants, tourism. It was all horrible, I agree. But how much money came into manufacturing? Some low estimates show at least a $250 million impact on the industry in lost productivity.”

But it has partly been the industry’s fault, Kennedy said.

“The thing that we battle is that the industry, their mantra is ‘Keep your head down,’” he said.

The dirty, polluting, massive plants that most people think of when they think of manufacturing are no longer the majority.

“Some are cleaner than some people’s houses and yards,” Kennedy said.

Yet, old regulations are choking growth and expansion in the state.

When Kennedy and his former business partner went to buy a building that had housed a 149-year-old company in Irvington, the Department of Environmental Protection came in and stalled the sale.

“There was no issue. Two years and a quarter-million dollars later, it was given the blessing to be sold. But, by that time, I had sold my part to my partner and he moved the company to Harrison, where it’s thriving,” Kennedy said.

That’s exactly what the industry remains afraid of.

“I’m not saying the DEP is bad — that’s the regulations they deal with. Sometimes, it’s just expanding a facility. Sometimes replacing machines. But these regulations are choking them,” Kennedy said. “These people live here and want a clean environment, too.”

That’s why the caucus is so important, he said.

“The problem is, a lot of legislation treats all companies alike. The treat Lockheed Martin — which is a great company and very big — the same as they treat ‘insert name here,’ you know, a 30-person firm in New Jersey. It’s hard for them to do the same things.”

That’s the main goal of this caucus, for the industry: to have an open line of communication. It doesn’t expect no taxes, but it expects to be able to be heard so changes can be made that are good for both sides. That hasn’t happened in many years.

And Friday, which is national Manufacturing Day, plays an equal role.

This year is the sixth since the U.S. Department of Commerce decreed an official Manufacturing Day.

“Year One … we scrambled to put something together, with (New Jersey Institute of Technology), and there wasn’t much cohesiveness. The year after, we broke out on our own and had about 100 people,” Kennedy recalls.

Since then, it has boomed.

Last year, it outgrew The Palace at Somerset Park in Somerset and has moved to the Bridgewater Marriott.

Kennedy said the event is likely to outgrow that soon, too.

“It’s a good problem to have,” he said.