Our company, Qualtek, is a Colorado Springs-based metal manufacturer specializing in press stamping, metal finishing, and heat treating processes with customers and suppliers along the Front Range.
In mid July I received an email from Doug Hargrave, the CEO of Iconergy, informing me he’d just signed up to participate in Walmart’s U.S. manufacturing summit, and hoped to see me there. ‘OK,’ I thought, ‘not sure why Doug was inviting me to a Walmart event, but then again I was not sure why he would be going either’. Iconergy is an Energy Services Company (ESCO) we have been working with the last two years and certainly would not have any products to sell to Walmart.
But I was interested, filled out the web link Doug sent and found out almost immediately that we made the cut and would be exhibiting at the U.S. Summit for Walmart Suppliers. We were delighted – very little would be coming out of our sales/promotions budget – and somewhat curious about just how big this would be.
Leading up to the event we received some info on the other participating companies and we were surprised to see a fairly limited list. In terms of manufacturers, there were only three Colorado companies represented: Stacey Machine and Tooling, Alfred Manufacturing, and Qualtek. Apparently not too many people got the ‘memo’, I thought.
When we arrived at the Colorado Convention Center on Thursday morning there were people everywhere. Certainly more of a buzz in the air than previous manufacturing events this year – I was remembering the AMCON event and Energy Expo. I came to find out later that much of the “buzz” was the result of an NFL fan meeting at the convention center that day. Unfortunately that buzz slowly faded as the two-day Summit wore on. We later passed by the exhibitor check-in table later that morning to see quite a few nametags unclaimed.
Thursday afternoon Walmart hosted the ‘general assembly’ presentation to a half-filled auditorium. The presentation opened with Mayor Michael Hancock, who made it abundantly clear the event was an afterthought on his schedule. He even went as far as pointing out the fact that none of his peers (mayors from around the country) attending the event had told him they were coming to town.
The lineup of speakers was impressive, including Walmart’s CEO and President Doug McMillan; Chief Sustainability Officer Kathleen McLaughlin; Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson; New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez; and US SBA Administrator Maria Contreras –Sweet. They even had South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley join the assembly via webcast from the Element Electronics plant where TV assembly work has been re-shored as part of Walmart’s focus on US manufacturing.
The overall theme of the event, reiterated time and again, was that Walmart has pledged to buy an additional $250 billion in American products. The Summit was to add clarity to that pledge and facilitate relationships between the American supplier base, economic development organizations, and state representatives trying to bring work into their corner of the country. We were told that Friday would be “one of the most efficient work days we have ever experienced,” because of the many different opportunities that would be presenting themselves.
Friday morning started slow and continued that way. We were lucky enough to have a 4 or 5 interested company representatives stop by and ask questions about our capabilities and expertise. Not a Walmart representative stopped by, nor did I see any walking around. A colleague told me that there was one Walmart rep that was hosting meetings in the common area of the exhibit hall – but (according to my source) it seemed as though those meetings had been pre-arranged.
I did meet a lot of folks from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee who were really interested in our business moving to their state. After about 11:00am the possibility that we might come across any more folks interested in our metal manufacturing services seemed to dwindle. By 1:30 it was obvious that the show was over. Virtually every exhibitor began taking down their tables early and neighboring companies candidly shared opinions on how strange it was to see an expo like this fizzle out so quickly. The consensus seemed to be, “well, at least it was free.”
Interestingly enough, there was a consulting firm exhibiting at the summit that summed up the whole experience simply by way of the services they offer. Made in USA Works LLC is a consulting firm that “specializes in reshoring Walmart suppliers to America under the Made in USA label.” I spoke with Chris Neeley their EVP, a former Walmart employee working on the reshoring project. He saw the opportunity to help companies as a third party consultant to navigate the waters of reshoring while improving visibility to potential customers like Walmart. I was happy to meet Chris because he helped answer some of the questions that the Summit seemed to generate. It also gave insight into how the largest company in the world could host an event intended to connect manufacturers without actually engaging them directly.
Odd as it may seem, if I have another opportunity with some assurance we would meet more local or pre-qualified contacts, I would probably do it again. Because the world of contract manufacturing has become so competitive, we need to seize any opportunity or edge that presents itself. We will have that chance at the Southern Colorado Manufacturing Expo in early October.
The fact is the time is right for suppliers and manufacturers to meet. Walmart’s themes of national manufacturing renewal are right on. The potential for manufacturers to build efficiencies into our supply chain are infinite and the savings of time, transportation, and quality assurance have a true economic benefit to our economy and environment.
I commend Walmart for their efforts in the reshoring initiatives taking place across our manufacturing base. Because of their size and scope, even small changes toward a “Made in the USA” supply chain will have lasting effects on our country’s ability to retool.
Chris Fagnant is the Director of Energy, Efficiency, and Environment at Qualtek Mfg. Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.