Al Frink, recently named assistant U.S. secretary of commerce, wants manufacturing to be treated with due respect.
He said he wasted no time getting that point across to the Chinese government. Frink, who spoke March 29 at Packaging Strategies 2005 in Atlanta, visited China in November with a U.S. trade delegation.
In a meeting to ``create dialogue'' with his Chinese hosts, Frink instead launched into a stern admonition against stealing intellectual property.
He told the Chinese delegation how their country has become known for imitation, not innovation, Frink said. He told them they need to change course and pay more attention to China's largest trading partner.
``I spoke in the voice of business, not politics, and they liked that,'' said Frink. ``I'm not full of diplomacy. I'm known as a straight shooter in my way of conveying [a message] from one country to the next.''
Frink also faces an uphill battle for respect from the Washington establishment. The man many call the first manufacturing czar enters a newly created position.
Frink touched on many issues: job losses, high health-care and energy costs, the need to innovate and improve marketing.
He said he would like to put manufacturing and the Commerce Department on the map in Washington. While talking to manufacturing groups, Frink found that many people did not know what the Commerce Department does and who to contact. Frink said he was not certain how to answer that question.
``We don't have a list of people and what they do,'' he said. ``We haven't chronicled our successes. Nobody keeps track of it.''
That ``branding'' problem rankles Frink. Appointed by President George W. Bush to provide a strong, unified voice for U.S. manufacturing, Frink said he has addressed more than 12,000 people in six months. He has asked states to appoint their own manufacturing leader. So far, only Minnesota has such a coalition and has its own ``czarina,'' he said.
Frink comes to the Beltway from business, as a former co-owner of a carpet manufacturing company in California. Born in Mexico, Frink said he understands the need for a global economy, even though he cannot remember his native Spanish (his parents moved to California after his fourth birthday).
Frink took the new position because he believes the need for a manufacturing voice is long overdue, he said. He outlined some of the 57 initiatives he set down in a departmental publication called ``Manufacturing in America.''
A major focus is property rights in China. After the meeting in November, the Commerce Department set up a 100-person office in China, under the helm of a patent attorney, to correct abuses in what Frink called ``organized piracy'' of products. A toll-free number, (866) 999-HALT, was started to report problems, and a Web site, www.stopfakes.gov, was created.
The United States would like to use its position as the biggest consumer of Chinese goods to get China to listen, he said.
But there are other issues on Frink's mind. One is attracting a new generation of skilled applicants to manufacturing-related careers. Of concern is the fact that 70 million baby boomers will retire by 2015. Only 40 million people will be in the workforce then, he said.
``There's been a move to highly technical skills. But many people still think [of manufacturing] as a dirty, blue-collar business.''
And speaking to a group of packaging professionals, Frink said brand identity is a big concern. While the government cannot create that, it can help companies differentiate their products and upgrade their images, he said.
The packaging industry deserves focus, he said. Packaging is a $120 billion industry in the United States and accounts for about $450 billion of global sales.
While other issues such as health-care costs will gain his attention, Frink said China is on his mind. He likened China to the Avis of rental car companies and the United States as Hertz. Avis tries harder, but Hertz still is bigger, he said.
``They are hungry competitors in China,'' Frink said. ``But the reality is that we'll find opportunities. We'll come back swinging. Our competitiveness from U.S. companies and our innovativeness will not allow us to fail.''