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Southwest Mississippi roadtrip worth the mileage

McComb is a bustling town down near the Louisiana line. Located on the old federal post road between Mobile and Natchez (now U.S. 98), the city has long been a center of commerce for Southwest Mississippi. McComb has special appeal to me since my father was born there in 1913.

One of the tasks I have assigned myself in my role as publisher is to get out and about and develop a feel for what’s going on around our state. This requires a fair amount of discipline since there’s no deadline or due date for getting it done, and it’s easier to just sit in the office and delete hundreds of junk e-mails.

So, when I got the invitation to speak at the McComb Rotary Club recently, I seized the opportunity to work in a little road trip while I was in the area. Service clubs bring out the best in a community and the McComb Rotary is no exception. One of the members told me they had the best fried chicken in the state and, after conducting my own personal investigation, I’m inclined to agree.

A stitch in time

As an aside to the trip, do you know how many people it takes to sew on one shirt button? Well, I popped a button off my shirt shortly before my Rotary talk and, though I’m an acknowledged hillbilly, I didn’t want to embarrass the club, so I borrowed a little sewing kit from the Day’s Inn.

While attempting to make the necessary repair I discovered that I couldn’t thread the needle. Glasses on, glasses off, hold it up to the light, it didn’t make any difference. I couldn’t get the thread through the microscopic needle hole.

Two farmers came by, who, because they hadn’t ruined their eyes proofing newspapers, were able to thread the needle in a jiffy. Thanks to my rescue by the farmers, I got myself dressed well before the meeting started. Thus, it took me, the hotel clerk and two farmers to sew on one shirt button, a total of four.

Manufacturing’s future in Mississippi

Following the meeting, Jerry Malone, workforce director with Southwest Community College in Summit, took me on a site visit to the Air Cruisers plant in Liberty. They manufacture inflatable deplaning slides for commercial airliners.

Should you ever have the misfortune of having to exit an airliner by some means other than the door you came in, your departure will be aided immensely by the products made by Air Cruisers.

I’ll bet you didn’t know we had that going on in Southwest Mississippi?

The Air Cruisers plant is neat, well lighted and the employees seem to be happy they’re working there. The timing of my trip was fortuitous since the company president, José Redento and the manufacturing VP, Neil Cavaleri, from the home office in Belmar, N.J., were at the plant. They, along with the plant manager, Ed Dundas, taught me so much about making airline deplaning slides that I’m now somewhat of an authority on the subject.

Air Cruisers has a lot to teach us about the future of manufacturing operations in Mississippi. They have steadily built their Mississippi workforce to well over 100 people during a time when other manufacturers were leaving the state for Mexico, China and Bavaria. All of the executives stressed the importance of training their workers as the secret of their success. Clearly, their partnership with Southwest Mississippi Community College has been a key ingredient in the company’s growth and success.

Mr. Redento told me a remarkable story. They have just signed a long-term contract to build deplaning slides for a new airline customer, which provides for a price decrease of 2.5% after the first couple of years into the contract. The only way they can survive and prosper under those terms is to increase productivity by at least 2.5%, and they have no specific plan for how they’re going to do it. Faith in technology advances and continuous employee training is the general strategy they are relying on to save the day. I’ll bet that the folks down in Southwest Mississippi will get it done.

It was truly an enjoyable day, and I appreciate Jerry making the arrangements for the Rotary talk and the Air Cruisers visit. The executives and employees at Air Cruisers treated me like royalty, and I appreciate their willingness to take time out to explain the intricacies of their operations.

Based on their faith in technological advances and a commitment to intense worker training, Air Cruisers is betting the farm on their Mississippi location. These two elements of the manufacturing mix, improving technology and training, keep turning up whenever the subject is the future of manufacturing anywhere in the U.S.

Competing with offshore labor

Manufacturing consists of converting raw materials into a product by applying labor and overhead. When you consider that raw materials cost the same thing in Liberty as they do in China, you’re down to overhead and labor as the variables.

Taking the analysis one step further, the cost of labor is not just the hourly wage, but includes how much is produced for the dollars spent. Training and technology make those labor hours more and more valuable. This is how we compete with cheap offshore labor.

In addition to an abundant, trainable workforce and business-friendly government policies, Mississippi also benefits from its central location. With our access to Interstate highways going in all directions, water and rail transportation, we are truly in the hub of things. Population growth is projected to be highest in the southern half of the U.S. over the coming decades and that’s a plus for us, too.

Mississippi really has some positive things going on around the state that we should all be proud of. Admittedly, there are problems to be resolved, but isn’t that always true?

Thought for the Moment

Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great. — Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

Joe D. Jones, CPA (retired), is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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