By Rich Rovito
Rich Meeusen isn’t one to sugarcoat an issue.
The chairman, president and chief executive officer of Brown Deer-based Badger Meter Inc. and the driving force behind an effort to transform the region into a global water technology hub, insisted that manufacturers are faced with an array of challenges that extend far beyond current economic conditions.
“I hate to be the one to rain on the parade, but I want to talk about the challenges facing manufacturers in Wisconsin, the things that make it difficult for us to operate here and what we can do to improve it,” Meeusen said in an energetic keynote address at the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s Manufacturing Matters! Conference held Feb. 27 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.
The challenges include managing changes in production processes and supply chains.
“There was a time when I could take somebody down to my shop 20 years ago and I could walk them through the process of making a water meter, from scrap brass to a finished water meter,” Meeusen said. “A few years ago I realized I had diversified a lot of the manufacturing, for good reasons, and I couldn’t do that anymore.”
Founded in 1905, Badger Meter claims to be the largest manufacturer of water meters in North America. The publicly traded company has 1,500 employees working at eight plants in five countries. Badger Meter’s facilities include plants in Brown Deer and Racine.
To highlight the complex manufacturing challenges Badger Meter faces in producing water meters, Meeusen showed the audience an eight-minute video highlighting the process.
“The meter takes an incredible journey from raw materials to finished goods,” Meeusen says in the video.
The journey begins at H. Kramer & Co. on the south side of Chicago, which transforms scrap brass into a body for a Badger Meter water meter. The process then shifts to the Fall River Foundry in Wisconsin, where finished water meter castings are made. The product is then machined at Fall River Manufacturing in Milwaukee before heading to Nogales, Mexico, where the meters are assembled and tested.
“At one time, the workers that are needed to make our water meters were all in Milwaukee. Some of them are still in Wisconsin, scattered around, but some are down in Mexico,” Meeusen said.
Meeusen told the crowd that his passion for manufacturing runs deep.
“When the other kids were playing cowboy and policeman, I was going door to door pretending to read water meters,” said Meeusen, who laced his presentations with large doses of humor and sarcasm.
Turning serious again, Meeusen noted that manufacturing currently accounts from about 16 percent of Wisconsin’s overall workforce, down from about 25 percent two decades ago. Although the percentage has declined, Wisconsin ranks second in the nation, behind only Indiana, and is well above the national average of 9 percent, he added.
Manufacturing jobs have been lost for several key reasons, including automation, which has eliminated low and semi-skilled jobs, Meeusen said. There’s also what he described as a “statistical anomaly” that occurs when every employee of a manufacturer is counted as being employed in manufacturing, even if they work in a company’s cafeteria, or do landscaping, or serve in security operations. Over the years, many manufacturers, including Badger Meter, have outsourced those operations, thus skewing the numbers, Meeusen said.
There also has been a shifting of jobs to the south, in many cases to right-to-work states, he added.
Meeusen noted that 24 states currently have right-to-work legislation, which allows workers to opt out of paying union dues, or even joining a union, even if they are covered by a labor deal. Meeusen favors right-to-work laws, which would be a major blow to organized labor in the state. Badger Meter’s Brown Deer plant is the company’s only unionized facility.
“Wisconsin is at risk of being an island if we keep this up,” he said.
Meeusen insisted that he will add highly skilled manufacturing jobs at Badger Meter’s plants in Wisconsin but has no intention of catering to unskilled workers.
“I’m not going to put unskilled labor in Milwaukee. I’m putting that in Mexico and I’m not apologizing for it,” he said.
In order to attract more young workers to careers in manufacturing, changes to educational systems need to be made, Meeusen said. In a move he claims began back in the late 1970s, students have been pushed to pursue four-year college degrees at the expense of a technical education.
“What parents have heard is that if your child doesn’t go to college, you’re probably a bad parent. So all the parents decided that their kids had to go to college,” Meeusen said.
That turned out to be a “huge mistake,” he said.
“You know what we did in our arrogance? We went into all of our high schools and ripped out all the shop equipment. We fired all the shop teachers and we said to the kids that they should all take calculus.”
Recent changes in direction should be seen as positive, to an extent, for the manufacturing sector, Meeusen said.
“Now this state is moving down the right path. Our governmental organizations and our technical colleges are starting to realize that maybe we made a mistake. But frankly we aren’t doing enough,” he said.
During a visit to Stuttgart, Germany, a few years ago, Meeusen encountered an industrial fair aimed at children.
“They bring children into factories so that they can see that these aren’t the factories of the 1950s. They aren’t the dirty, dingy, noisy, smoky places. They are clean, efficient, well-lighted. They are great places to work,” Meeusen said. “On the plane back I thought we should be doing this in America.”
Wisconsin needs to focus on its advantages as it looks to build its manufacturing economy, Meeusen said.
He spoke of the efforts of the Water Council, an organization he co-founded in 2007 with a mission to promote freshwater research, economic development and transform southeastern Wisconsin into a world water hub. He serves as co-chairman of its board of directors.
Meeusen insists that there are at least 150 companies in southeast Wisconsin that can be classified as water technology companies. As part of its effort, the council last fall opened the Global Water Center, a $22 million, 98,000-square-foot, seven-story facility in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood.
“I’m very optimistic about what we can do in Wisconsin,” Meeusen said. “We are going to prove to the nation that in Wisconsin manufacturing matters.”