It's loud and clear that whistle factory in Ohio is successful

May 06, 2007|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,Chicago Tribune

WORTHINGTON, Ohio -- They don't make things like they used to in Ohio, a state that has become a living museum of dead American factories.

Drive around Ohio and you can see the effects of assembly-line wreckage in cities that used to boast of tires (Akron), glass (Toledo), cash registers (Dayton), steel (Cleveland and Youngstown).

Even production of the toy icon Etch-A-Sketch, formerly in the small town of Bryan, has been shipped to the cheap-labor haven of China. Now communities all over the state play host to the relentless economic assault on General Motors, Ford, Daimler Chrysler and their parts suppliers.

Amid such gloom, it's understandable that people would thirst for an economic savior. Maybe a bunch of ethanol plants spread across the state. Perhaps biotechnology centers affiliated with universities or some "next big thing" coming right around bend - in fact, coming in the very next paragraph. This is not one of those stories.

No, this is a singular tale of pluck and endurance of a handful of people making a tiny instrument whose roots stretch back thousands of years, to ancient China.

It's the whistle, and in a little gray cinderblock factory on the northern cusp of Columbus, more than a million metal whistles are manufactured annually. American Whistle Corp., as it claims, is "the one, the only" metal whistle manufacturer in the United States.

Solid brass, one size only, with gold, silver or bronze plating and engraved with logos - companies, universities, hospitals, the NFL, whatever you want. There's even an Alcatraz Island special edition prison guard whistle.

They're cheap - most of them cost $3 or $4 - and they're all dependably shrill.

"It's a very inexpensive small tool that only has to work once to be worth it," said Jennifer Valentine, the company's marketing director.

Chaos - real, potential and perhaps imagined - is part of the survival story of American Whistle. The burgeoning market for public safety, which has grown in an era of community policing, domestic terrorist attacks and, last month, mass murder at Virginia Tech, has helped advance whistle sales.

"Sports used to be number one in sales," said Ray Giesse, CEO of American Whistle. For 14 years the company has produced the specially engraved whistle for the Super Bowl.

Now the company's biggest sales event is the International Association of Chiefs of Police's annual convention. "It's the busiest convention I go to all year," he said.

The University of Colorado buys 6,000 whistles every year to distribute to incoming freshmen, Giesse said. Police departments across the country buy them by the hundreds or thousands, to distribute to neighborhood organizations.

More than 100,000 go to primary and secondary schools. The company keeps a log of personal testimonials of whistle-blowing individuals who blew their way to safety after heart attacks and other debacles.

One might expect that American whistle production would have been ceded to overseas manufacturers years ago, much like buttons going to China.

In fact, China makes metal whistles, along with Taiwan, Korea, England and Canada. American Whistle manufacturing could have easily fled to cheaper shores when Giesse and a business partner bought the struggling 4,000-square-foot factory in 1988.

"The company was virtually out of business when we bought it. It was going downhill fast," Giesse said.

A big key to the company's growth and success was securing distribution through Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer. A second was offering something the foreign competition doesn't - at least not yet: customized engraving from a 39-ton press.

Even with those advantages, the company has gone through its own drastic downsizing over the years, shrinking from three shifts and 26 employees to one shift and 10, Giesse said.

"I think [U.S.] trade policies are destroying the middle class," Giesse said. "It's ridiculous. I think we're destroying the next generation."

With the constant hum and hiss of machinery and the loud, regular thud from the stamping machine, this one-room factory has the look of manufacturing in transition.

Old brass-cutting machinery is on one part of the floor, robotics technology on another. Large coils of brass are stacked on the floor, next to cardboard boxes.

Little puffs of smoke waft above one specially made machine after ice-cold air is blown on recently soldered whistles.

"We've got a new machine coming soon," Giesse said. "We're continuing to try to be more efficient. ... We've been giving it our best, and so far we've been successful."

Giesse remains confident about the future and the demand for whistles. "But we don't take anything for granted," he added.

As whistle executives, Giesse and his wife, Diane Serraglio, president of the company, have seen two of their three children married. At their older daughter's reception, 230 people blew whistles at the reception, in unison.

"It was almost painful," he said.

Their younger daughter is getting married at the end of the month. The whistles with the special imprint are ready.

Tim Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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