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The Rust Belt is back. So say bullish observers as U.S. exports surge, long-moribund industries glow with newfound profits, and unemployment dips to lows not seen in a decade. But in the smokestack citadels, there's disquiet. Too many machine-tool and auto parts factories are silent; too many U.S. industries still can't hold their own.
The focus of the story is Burgmaster Corp., a Los Angeles-area machine-tool maker founded in 1944 by Czechoslovakian immigrant Fred Burg. Holland's father worked there for 29 years, and the author interviewed 22 former employees. His shop-floor view of this small company is a refreshing change from academic treatises on why America can't compete.
The discussions of spindles and numerical control can be tough going. But Holland compensates by conveying the excitement and innovation of the company's early days and the disgust and cynicism accompanying its decline. Moreover, the fate of Burgmaster and its brethren is crucial to the U.S. industrial economy: Any manufactured item is either made by a machine tool or by a machine made by a machine tool.
Producing innovative turret drills used in a wide variety of metalworking tasks, Burgmaster was a thriving enterprise by 1965, when annual sales amounted to about $8 million. The company needed backing to expand, however, so it sold out to Buffalo-based conglomerate Houdaille Industries Inc. Houdaille was in turn purchased in a 1979 leveraged buyout led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. By 1982, when debt, competition, and a sickly machine-tool market had battered Burgmaster badly, Houdaille went to Washington with a petition to withhold the investment tax credit for certain Japanese-made machine tools.
Thanks to deft lobbying, the Senate passed a resolution supporting Houdaille's position, but President Reagan refused to go along. Houdaille's subsequent attempt to link Burgmaster up with a Japanese rival also failed, and Burgmaster was closed.
Holland uses Burgmaster's demise to explore some key issues of economic and trade policy. Houdaille's charge that a cartel led by the Japanese government had injured U.S. toolmakers, for example, became a rallying point for those who would blame a fearsome Japan Inc. for the problems of U.S. industry.
Holland describes the Washington wrangling over Houdaille in painful detail. But he does show that such government decisions are often made without much knowledge of what's going on in industry. He shows, too, that Japanese producers succeeded less because of government help
Holland's history of the company under Houdaille is a veritable catalog of modern management techniques that flopped. One of the most disastrous was a system for computerizing production scheduling that was too crude for complex machine-tool manufacturing. Holland gives a dramatic depiction of supply snafus that resulted in delays and cost increases.
In the end, however, Holland puts most of the blame for the industry's decline on government policy. He targets tax laws and macroeconomic policies that encourage LBOs and speculation instead of productive investment. He also criticizes Pentagon procurement policies for favoring exotic, custom machines over standard, low-cost models. Like their brethren in Detroit and Pittsburgh, domestic tool-makers in the 1970s were too complacent when imports seized the lower end of the product line. Even now some of the largest U.S. tool-makers are struggling to restructure. Blame the government, yes. But blame the industry, too.
Here is some background information also on the rust belt, if you'd like to incorporate this into your answer as well.
This article follows Burgmaster Corporation, a Los Angeles area machine-tool maker. As it details the history, it discusses its innovation of the early days and then the corporations decline in 1982. It tells the story of an American business that had lost its battle because of policies made by the government ...
A rust belt article is summarized.