The Reckoning

Reshoring With a British Twist

Here’s a good news story, courtesy of my former colleagues at the BBC, about a British manufacturing firm forced by economic realities in 2004 to shutter much of its domestic U.K. production lines in Merseyside (northeast England), moving those jobs to China. Now, due to the changing dynamics in global trade that I’ve been writing about, the company is bringing those jobs back home. 

It’s a story happening all over the U.S., too. But the wonderful thing about this two-part documentary is its narrative approach. Eschewing geo-economic analysis, (and, indeed, eschewing words like eschewing), the documentary puts Chinese and British faces on the great debate over manufacturing. In a subject so filled with populist emotion and so easy to reduce to sloganeering, the BBC has provided a great service.

Rather than charts and graphs, we get decision-making in the executive suite and on the shop floor. The company’s CEO, Tony Caldeira, has maintained a factory in Kirkby, a hardscrabble Merseyside town where unemployment is at a staggering 70 percent. The documentary takes us right through the cushion-maker’s thought process in assessing whether it made sense to bring the jobs sent abroad in 2004 back to Britain or simply to demand improved productivity in China. 

We don’t know which way this will cut as the documentary begins, though spoiler alerts are hardly needed. Soaring costs—in terms of the labor, transportation, and demands for safety and other improvements by Chinese workers—have leveled the playing field. 

But the true genius here is that the CEO involves his British workers in the decision, even sending a pair of Kirkby seamstresses on a visit to the Chinese plant, providing both an incredible view into the differences in Western and Chinese production within the same product line, but also a sense of the deep misconceptions Western workers have with regard to the far deeper challenges a Chinese worker faces. Kirkby’s workers may be struggling; China’s stark realities shock them. 

This is a theme playing out at many levels of manufacturing—and if it is true what Caldera has determined, that even in this very manual textile subcategory his British workforce is just as cost-effective—there is reason to believe we see continued good news coming from the much more productive U.S. manufacturing sector, too.