He Said, She Said: Two American Business Owners, Two Views

Balboa Baby has cornered the market on cute. Within minutes of perusing their online site, I fought the urge to plunk heaps o' stuff in my virtual shopping cart. Gimme one of everything: the Adjustable Sling, the Nursing Cover, the Nursing Pillow, and that nifty Shopping Cart Cover. All come in colorful yet sophisticated Hawaiian-look cotton print fabrics; all would make perfect gifts for my daughter, a soon-to-be first-time mama. My two favorites: The Nursing Cover, which creates a airy yet private tent-like drape for nursing one's baby in public places. And the Shopping Cart Cover, a soft, quilted cover that "provides a clean and secure environment" for one's baby. Makes a trip to the grocery store look downright cozy. Like I said, I wanted one of everything.

But where were all these nifty items made? I searched Balboa Baby's website. I'm learning that if a product's been Made in USA, online companies highlight that fact. If not, it's up to the consumer to dig deeper. I gave the company a call. It was a Saturday. No answer. I left a message, but didn’t want to wait until Monday for the answer. A quick trip to Babies 'R Us confirmed the obvious: Yup, Balboa Baby should actually be called China Baby.

On Monday morning a Balboa Baby rep returned my call. I tried to explain my one-year Buy-American project, and asked if anyone there might be willing to comment on why Balboa Baby manufactures in China instead of in the USA. The rep cupped her hand over the receiver and asked someone a question. "There's a person here who can help you," she said. Moments later, a new voice. "Hi, this is Noel, can I help you?"

According to the Balboa Baby website, Noel Pepys and his mom, Shirley Pepys, founder of Noelle Joanna, Inc (NoJo) have "teamed up with Dr. William Sears, best known as 'America's Pediatrician,' to create fashionable and functional products to make life simpler for parents and better for babies." No argument there. But why manufacture in China?

"My family's been using factories in China to make our products for 20 years," Noel said. "I'm totally open though…costs are going up...I've been kicking around the idea of going somewhere else, maybe have some products sewn in Mexico…"

I didn't seem to be making my point.

We briefly chatted about Orange County, a place Don and I both know well. Don attended medical school there. I earned a teaching credential there and taught there as well. We once lived in Newport Beach on Balboa Island, in a tiny apartment over a garage, just a few feet from the bay. At night we could hear the low fog horn moan off in the distance. Seagulls flapped through the air in the mornings. It was a special time of our lives. Maybe that's why "Balboa" Baby's products called to me and "China" Baby's products didn't.

I pressed on, asked Mr. Pepys again. Why not manufacture here? He explained that to shift his manufacturing--or any company's manufacturing--to the USA "could be its own reality TV show, just asking the question 'can it be made in America?' The labor, the cost of the cotton. Do we have the labor? If products are more expensive to make, would people be willing to pay more? If so, how much? Ten percent more? 50%? Look, I get emails daily from overseas manufacturers wanting to do business with me. I never get emails like that from anyone here…besides, maybe a global economy makes the world safer. If we're all in this together, if we all have a piece of the pie, it may protect us from our adversaries."

I thanked Mr. Pepys for his time. He was friendly, patient and willing to discuss a sensitive topic. And he clearly has a terrific line of products. I wanted to agree with him, wanted to buy his adorable products named after a place I remember well and loved, wanted to believe that America's manufacturing in places like China actually made the world a safer place. It's such a reassuring thought.

But then I remembered how China recently tested its first stealth fighter jet, right under our Defense Secretary's nose. Surely America's proclivities for Chinese-made goods helped pay for the People's Liberation Army's beefed up defense. And I remembered how, increasingly, China seeks to purchase companies here in the USA. How it bids on and wins lucrative contracts here. How the Chinese Politburo does business in its own country. How it hoards precious metals, manipulates its currency in its own favor, requires America's tech companies to design and build their innovative products in China, thus making it easier for China to duplicate and produce those innovative products for less cost, threatening to put America's own companies out of business. Repeatedly, China acts as an aggressor, out to protect no one but itself. Would Mexico be any better? And what's the point of American business anyway? To build foreign economies? Or to support and strengthen our economy, our free enterprise system?

Next up: My second conversation, this time with a Berkeley-based businesswoman.