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How Brush Factories Survive In America

Jun 21, 2013
Originally published on June 25, 2013 3:46 pm

Brushes are pretty simple: a bunch of flexible fibers sticking out of something stiff. Not surprisingly, Chinese manufacturers have grabbed a big share of the U.S. brush market. But several hundred small U.S. brush factories are still hanging on. Here are three strategies they're using to survive.

1. Compete On Quality

In an old-fashioned factory building in the South Bronx, Izzy Kirschner's half dozen employees are making paintbrushes. They're stuffing bristles from slaughtered boars into metal casings, using machines that once belonged to Kirschner's dad. But unlike his dad, these guys try to make every brush perfect.

"My father was more interested in mass production," Kirschner says.

When Kirschner took over the business about 15 years ago, he saw he wouldn't survive if he made mediocre brushes whose bristles came out in the paint. Chinese factories could make the same brushes much more cheaply.

Instead, Kirschner decided to sell expensive brushes to high-end, professional painters who are willing to pay a premium to get exactly the brush they want.

2. Find Niche Markets

"We're making brushes now for the top of the Freedom Tower to keep pigeons out," says Lance Cheney, the fourth-generation owner of Braun Brush on Long Island. His company also made a tiny brush for NASA's Mars Rover, to sweep away the Martian dirt.

"That's the key to being able to manufacture in this country," Cheney says. "If you have a machine that spits out all the same thing over and over and over again, that's right for China. For us, the machine has to be able to be extremely flexible. So it's still automation, but I'm gonna make one brush in the morning, another brush between the lunch and the break, and then a completely different brush the rest of the day on the same piece of equipment."

This allows Cheney to set prices based not on how much the bristle and block cost, but on how much time and effort went into it and how much it's worth to the customer.

3. Build personal relationships

While Cheney keeps building relationships with the next generation, many of Kirschner's clients are from the past. Kirschner's daughter Deborah says they love her dad because he's a constant.

"They can all get my dad on the phone," she says.

But Kirschner is 69. What happens when he and his customers start to retire?

"I do think that there's probably a little danger in that," Deborah says. "There's a lot of loyalty, and that dies out with people and companies."

For More: See Adam Davidson's New York Times Magazine column, What Paintbrush Makers Know About How To Beat China.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's get down to basics next. You know when you brush your hair or your teeth this morning, take a look at the technology in your hand. The brush is so simple you might not even think of it as technology; flexible fibers sticking out of a handle. And because it's cheap to make, China has grabbed much of the market in making brushes. But in the United States, several hundred small brush factories are hanging on. Marianne McCune, of NPR's Planet Money team, reports on some of the tricks they use to survive.

MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: In an old-fashioned factory building in the South Bronx, Izzy Kirschner's half a dozen employees are making paintbrushes. They're stuffing bristles from slaughtered boars into metal casings. They're doing it with their hands and machines that once belonged to Kirschner's dad. But unlike his dad, these guys try to make every brush perfect.

IZZY KIRSCHNER: My father was more interested in mass production.

MCCUNE: Efficiency.

(LAUGHTER)

KIRSCHNER: Efficiency. OK.

MCCUNE: When Kirschner took over the business about 15 years ago, he saw you couldn't make it if your brush bristles came out in the paint. With China making brushes more efficiently than he ever could, he learned he had to live by survival strategy number one: produce quality, not quantity. Because you can't compete with China on price.

KIRSCHNER: Once you try to do that you're in trouble.

MCCUNE: Instead, sell a brush that paints beautifully to professional painters. And give them exactly what they want. That's survival tip number two: adapt to what your customers want. For example, Kirschner makes a specialized brush called the Man-Helper, used to paint the Triborough Bridge. He finds niche markets. And there are plenty of niche markets out there. Another brush maker taking advantage of them: Lance Cheney, out of Long Island.

LANCE CHENEY: We're making brushes now for top of the Freedom Tower to keep pigeons out.

MCCUNE: That's a $40,000 dollar brush. Cheney is the fourth generation owner of Braun Brush, another little factory with a lot of know-how. Braun Brush made a tiny brush for NASA, for the Mars Rover, to sweep away the Martian dirt.

CHENEY: Every day there's another application that surprises me.

MCCUNE: Though Cheney's made a name with high tech brushes, his factory includes machines passed down from his great-grandfather. And some employees are nearly that old, too. A man whose been here 51 years uses scissors to snip the ends off a roller brush, used to clean Shea Stadium. The plant manager, Adam Czarnowski, has been with the company 63 years.

ADAM CZARNOWSKI: We are not ordinary brush makers, we are problem solvers.

CHENEY: That's the key to being able to manufacture in this country. If you have a machine that spits out all the same thing over and over and over again, that's ripe for China. For us, the machine has to be able to be extremely flexible. So it's still automation, but I'm going to make one brush in the morning, another brush between the lunch and the break, and then a completely different brush the rest of the day on the same piece of equipment.

MCCUNE: Then you can set prices based on perceived value, he says - not how much the bristle and block cost, but how much time and effort went into it and how much it's worth to the customer. Do you make any products the cheapest way they can be made?

CHENEY: No.

MCCUNE: So high standards and customized products, two strategies that have kept these brush-makers in business. And there's a third vital ingredient for both: relationships. They both have loyal customers. But this is where the two brush makers differ. While Cheney keeps building relationships with the next generation, many of Kirschner's clients are from the past. Kirschner's daughter Debra says they love her dad because he's a constant.

DEBRA KIRSCHNER: They can all get my dad on the phone and that's just, like, not how businesses are run anymore.

MCCUNE: But what happens when Kirschner, who's 69, and some of his customers start to retire?

KIRSCHNER: I do think that there's probably a little danger in that. Because it's like there's a lot of loyalty and, yeah, that dies out with people and companies.

KIRSCHNER: There's days where business feels it's worth $50 million. And there's days where it feels like it's worth two cents.

MCCUNE: One day soon, Kirschner wants to sell the business. He just needs to find someone who cares as much as he does. Marianne McCune, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: On MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.