First Quarter Review

He who thinks himself wise, O heavens! is a great fool. --Voltaire

After three months on this Buy American journey, only one thing is clear: I know so little, and have so much to learn. I am not an economist. I am not a businessperson. I am simply a daughter who misses her Dad and wishes she could go back in time to hear him talk about the trade imbalance--or his golf game--again, and then fast forward to the present to share with him what she's been learning.

I would tell him I feel like one of those people we used to see at the beach holding a metal detector, moving it along, hoping to unearth something valuable buried in the sand. Hey, I didn't know we still made that in this country. What a treasure.

Recently, Takao Iwasaki, CEO of Japan's Kureha Corporation, discussed the challenges his company faces following the devastating earthquake. According to the Wall Street Journal (March 29, 2011), Kureha makes 70% of the global supply of polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF), a "crucial polymer used in lithium-ion batteries." The polymer makes it easier to squeeze batteries into compact electronic devices such as the Apple iPod. The sole Kureha factory that produces PVDF is located in Iwaki, near the quake's epicenter. Although the factory "came out of the quake in decent shape," the nearby Onahama Port was severely damaged. "Crucial supplies such as vinyl chloride and salt aren't reaching the factory yet." The company had already planned to build factories in other countries (including the United States), and will now push ahead. But Mr. Iwasaki "stressed the need to keep research and development and technology in Japan." He went on to say: "We spent 30 to 40 years developing this--it is our treasure. These technologies should be kept in Japan, and Japan should be the base for the mother plant.'"

What treasures do we have in this country that need protecting? How can American companies adopt Mr. Iwasaki's attitude? This is ours. You can't have it.

Last week my product-hunt led me to Bill's Khakis. Some would argue that categorizing Bills Khakis as a "treasure" is hyperbole. But to me, a treasure is in the eye of the beholder. Ask those Bills Khakis employees. They'd probably agree. Next week I'll discuss a company that manufactures Vertical Shaft Impactors. Maybe you--like me--have never heard of VSIs. To the people that engineer and manufacture them here in this country, superbly designed and built VSIs mean efficient, cost-effective construction of taxpayer-funded roads, bridges, and dams. Who would've thought? Another treasure. The kicker here? As the email from a company that makes VSIs said, "The inrusion of low cost, Chinese made equipment into the market." But you guessed that, right?

Where will I go, week after week, until December 31st? Lime green Post-It Notes--stuck to every notebook and available surface on my desk--remind me of products and companies to look into thanks to readers, friends, and family. And so I'll meander from one product to the next, buying, discussing, going here and there as the detector registers blips on its screen. It's all very unpredictable. A few moments ago, for example, I mentioned Post-It Notes. I knew Post-It Notes were still Made in the USA; I'd just bought a batch at Costco and checked. But what did I know beyond that? What's the Post-It Notes story?

Well, (despite what Romy and Michele would say) Post-It Notes were invented by Art Fry and Spencer Silver. Art Fry, born in Minnesota, was "a tinkerer and a problem-solver." As a kid, he created custom designed toboggans from scrap lumber. He eventually earned a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Minnesota. As an undergraduate, he began working for 3-M in New Product Development (he continued to work there until his retirement). Spencer Silver was born in San Antonio. He earned a doctorate in Organic Chemistry from the University of Colorado. He took a job at 3-M as a Senior Chemist (and later as an expert in Adhesives Technology). In 1968, Dr. Silver invented a "low tack" adhesive, but in the five years that followed he and the company hadn't hit on a marketable use for the product. Meanwhile, Mr. Fry thought about his colleague's low tack adhesive when his (Fry's) bookmarks kept dropping out of his choir hymnal in church. During a particularly long sermon, Mr. Fry puzzled out the design for what would eventually become a Post-It Note. Five years later, in 1980, after perfecting the specifications and designing the machinery to produce the product, Post-It Notes were introduced to the world. They continue to be manufactured for 3-M in Cynthiana, Kentucky. They continue to be our own, uniquely American treasure.

By the way, like Art Fry, my Dad was "a tinkerer and a problem solver." As a teenager, he crafted water skis out of scrap lumber. In family home movies, he whizzes along Lake Arrowhead's glass-smooth aqua surface, laughing at the camera.

That's it for the first quarter. Oh, and if you'd like a springtime Post-It Notes idea, just scroll down the page, past the "Post-It Notes Valentine Truck" and "Post-It People." Happy planting.