Marv Lieberman was questioning.
Lieberman, 72, is chief operating officer of Pit Barrel Cooker, a new player in the $1 billion U.S. barbeque grill business. Its 14-inch “Junior” grill is its latest to be manufactured in China.
The first batch just shipped from the factory here that Lieberman is about to visit.
Lieberman is long-experienced with manufacturing in China. He was an executive with several W.C. Bradley companies when they first explored manufacturing products in China, and he later worked for a consulting firm that helped other U.S. companies do the same.
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This trip here is his 85th to China in the last 24 years.
Will the product be acceptable? This is the question on Lieberman’s mind as he walks into the factory.
‘Factory of the world’
Many Columbus companies do business in China.
TSYS owns a large stake in UnionPay Data Services, the company that processes China’s most widely used credit card.
NCR is a leading supplier of ATMs in China and an increasing number of the point-of-sale terminals found in restaurants and retail stores.
Salt Life gets its sportswear from China.
Even Aflac ducks are made here.
But it’s the “Made in China” barbeque grills – like the grills Lieberman was inspecting – that most connect Columbus with China. Char-Broil dominates the “Made in China” sector. This 73-year-old subsidiary of the W.C. Bradley Company manufactures more barbeque grills in China than any of its competitors – some 2.2 million annually, according to the company.
Much smaller in the “Made in China” sector is Masterbuilt, owned by the McLemore family, whose 44-year-old company in Columbus is an example of “small- and medium-sized players” that populate the industry, according to industry studies by IBISWorld. None accounts for more than 3-5 percent of the market.
Evidence of these Columbus connections can be seen in a small piece of south China known as the Pearl River Delta. This is a triangle of Chinese economic power, sitting just above the cities of Hong Kong and Macau.
The PRD, as it’s known, is the world’s largest urban area, according to the World Bank.
Manufacturing dominates. The Atlantic’s James Fallows estimates that the Pearl River Delta, though only the size of Massachusetts, employs more people in manufacturing than the entire U.S. Foreign investment, including from the U.S., drives the growth.
This U.S. role is sure to be discussed when President Donald Trump meets this week with China leaders, including President Xi Jinping. Trump is hostile toward U.S. investment in China and favors returning manufacturing jobs from China to the U.S.
I was here recently to see how U.S. investment has helped create this “factory of the world,” especially through the experience of Georgia companies with a major presence in Columbus. I was last here almost 20 years ago, which coincides with the Pearl River Delta’s emergence as China’s “most dynamic, open and innovative region,” according to The Economist.
Oldest and youngest
Char-Broil is the oldest and arguably the largest barbeque grill manufacturer in the U.S. Pit Barrel Cooker, by contrast, is one of the newest and smallest. Marv Lieberman is determined to see it grow and prosper.
I traveled with Lieberman on the train from Hong Kong to Foshan, where a typical, small, metal fabricating plant manufactures the newest, vertical, drum cookers. This is the 16-inch Pit Barrel Junior, aimed at the tailgate and patio markets, expected to be on sale around Christmas.
Pit Barrel is a Kentucky company that hired Lieberman, of Columbus, as chief operating officer for, among other reasons, his experience with China manufacturing. Lieberman was an executive with Char-Broil, New Braunfels Smokers and Bradley Leisure Products when those companies first explored manufacturing its products in China, and he later worked for a consulting firm that helped other U.S. companies do the same.
Factories in Foshan, on the western side of the Pearl River Delta, focus on furniture, machinery, metal fabricating and beverages. There is no assembly line in this plant, not even work benches. Work – cutting, bending, assembly – is done on the floor. Machines line the plant’s edges: a metal shear, benders, punch presses, welding jigs.
The plant has just finished and shipped the initial run of cookers. We see the leftovers: a coil of steel, drums that were rejected, packaging. A half-dozen workers are engaged with other projects.
Lieberman and I talked at the end of a long day. He’d visited the factory, inspected the product, and talked with the owners.
“I’m pleased with the product they’re making,” Lieberman said. “It’s acceptable.”
Is “acceptable” good enough, I asked.
“Better than not acceptable,” Lieberman said. “At this point in the process, it’s not great, but acceptable.”
John F. Greenman is professor of journalism emeritus at the University of Georgia and the former president and publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer. He publishes the travel guide www.36hoursincolumbus.com.