(May 19, 2003) — Two weeks ago, Airlite Plastics Co. was unknown. There aren't too many plastics processors that are household names, and Airlite wasn't one of them. The Omaha, Neb., company injection molds thin-wall food containers and makes insulated expanded polystyrene shipping containers and insulated concrete forms for the construction industry.
Then came a May 12 visit from President Bush.
Unless you've had a chance to host a presidential visit, you can't imagine the intensity of the spotlight.
Suddenly a company that hasn't received much publicity beyond the pages of Plastics News and the Omaha World-Herald was getting calls from just about every major media outlet in the country.
Today much of America has heard of Airlite. Unfortunately, they probably know it as the company that was going to require its employees to work on a Saturday to make up the time they'd miss during Bush's visit. The story was repeated hundreds of times, in newspapers, TV and radio reports seen and heard around the globe. That's the sort of coverage that happens when the president comes to town. (Unless you're a careful news reader, you probably missed the follow-up story that said the employees would be paid after all).
I followed up with Airlite President and Chief Executive Officer Brad Crosby last week, a few days after the press corps and presidential entourage had cleared out of town. Considering the way the company was caught in the mud bath of Washington politics, I was surprised by his big-picture assessment of the visit.
“Overall, I think Airlite and its employees had an outstanding experience,” Crosby said. “The feedback I heard from all of our employees was just so enthusiastic.”
Crosby said Bush spent a lot of time on the “rope line” shaking hands and talking to workers. Crosby isn't sure if Bush picked up any votes — “I didn't take a poll,” he joked — but he said workers were impressed with how down-to-earth Bush seemed, and how well he spoke.
Crosby, who when asked whether he was a Republican described himself as “not politically inclined at all,” was thrilled that Bush seemed very interested in the company's EPS concrete forms, which are used to build sturdy, fuel-efficient homes.
Bush even autographed the first EPS form made at the new, 80,000-square-foot plant. (Lost in most of the news reports was the fact that Airlite is a growing manufacturing business, a rare bird in the past few years).
Crosby was too diplomatic to criticize the negative news reports, even if some did make Airlite sound like a sweatshop. How did that happen? Crosby said the company wanted to give all its employees an opportunity to see the president, which meant that workers who typically would have worked during the shift when Bush was visiting could take that time off and work the next weekend instead. A man who said he was an employee, but did not give his name, called a local newspaper to complain. Suddenly Crosby was caught in an avalanche of bad press: Bush was coming to tout his tax-cut plan, but workers were going to lose money to hear the message. When Crosby realized how the media was spinning the story, he quickly backtracked and agreed to pay everyone whether they worked, attended the rally, or took the day off.
He also didn't have any advice for companies preparing for a presidential visit — Crosby said he has not had time to ponder the idea. He said the whole process was incredibly fast-paced — he had only three or four days to plan the visit, including all the logistics and security.
Still, it is a question worth pondering. Few companies have an opportunity for such a high-profile moment, and most would be ill-prepared if the opportunity came tomorrow.
Perhaps that's for the best. After all, most of the media doesn't really understand manufacturing businesses like plastics processors, and based on this administration's economic policy, I'm not sure anyone in the White House does, either.
Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News. To see Bush's remarks at Airlite, click here.