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Michael Penner, president and CEO of Richelieu, poses in their Montreal offices, June 13, 2014. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
Michael Penner, president and CEO of Richelieu, poses in their Montreal offices, June 13, 2014. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

An American revival: A Canadian manufacturer’s quest to rebuild itself Add to ...

If there’s really very little difference between making something in Canada and making it in the U.S., then why is the North American manufacturing rebound largely skipping Ontario, Quebec and other provinces? One reason is that the U.S. is at the heart of the action. Mr. Mai said 70 per cent of his customers are in the U.S. and he wanted to get closer to them.

Another reason could be that Americans just want these jobs more.

Manufacturing figures prominently in Mr. Obama’s economic policy and each state has sophisticated economic development operations. “We’re learning in the United States and in North Carolina that you can’t leave it to services alone,” Mr. McCrory said. “Not everyone can work for the county government, or for the hospital, or for a large box chain. We have to continue to build things, make things, innovate things, produce things and grow things. If we stop doing that, the economic model will not be sustainable.”

It’s not just the politicians. Mr. Penner was able to convince lenders and the state of North Carolina to back his bid to make socks in Burke County because Wal-Mart decided to set a pile of money aside to buy American-made goods. There’s a public relations element to what Wal-Mart is doing, to be sure, but the mega-retailer doesn’t intend to lose money on the project. It knows American consumers want to buy stuff that’s Made in the USA. There is no similar source of demand for domestically sourced goods in Canada.

“My dream is to have a factory back here again one day,” Mr. Penner says on the phone from Montreal. “I think it’s realistic. One of the things that would be helpful is if there was a little bit more support for Made-in-Canada initiatives.”

A factory reopens

At about 10:30 a.m. on June 16, Mr. Penner strode onto the empty factory floor of his facility in Hildebran, where a few dozen employees had assembled. A few minutes earlier, Mr. Penner had received a call from the state capital Raleigh: His grant application had been officially approved. He breathed a sigh of relief, removed moose-head cufflinks from his yellow dress shirt, rolled up the sleeves, and got up to make the announcement to his workers.

“We’re bringing manufacturing back to the United States!”

There is applause and maybe even some tears. He explained his plan: At first, 90 of the best knitting machines money can buy, and eventually 400, filling the space where they all are standing now. Some textile companies sell “Made-in-the-USA” socks that are knitted in the U.S. and then sent to Mexico or Central America, where cheaper labour sews the toe, applies the dye, presses them and packages them. Richelieu intends to do everything involved in making its higher-end Peds and Medipeds brands in North Carolina. The socks are made from high-quality yarn and have a higher needle count than other brands on the market.

“We’re going to be one of the best sock companies in the world!”

If Mr. Penner’s gambit works, some of his profits will flow back to Richelieu’s headquarters in Montreal. But for now, Burke County will get the benefits of his ambition. Richelieu plans to hire 200 people over the next few years. Mr. Penner’s office manager, Elena Azzarita, already had received dozens of applications before the announcement. Word got out that the new owner of Neuville Industries was planning something big.

“People had lost a lot of morale,” Rita Pope, 54, an employee in the distribution warehouse who has worked for Neuville, ILG and now Richelieu, said after the assembly. Most of her family and friends worked in textiles, but she is one of the few who still has a job in the industry. “What Richelieu is doing will bring the community back together again.”

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