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Made in NYC: How Manufacturers Make Small Businesses Work in the City

By Patrick Wall | October 8, 2012 3:11pm | Updated on October 12, 2012 6:51am

NEW YORK — Ken Bollella likes cork.

It is made from the bark of centuries-old trees, he notes, which can be re-harvested every few years.

It has been used as an icebox insulator, a bottle stopper, an automobile gasket, an ancient Roman life preserver and, in Bollella’s business, as a floor tile.

At the block-long, mostly underground factory in the South Bronx, Bollella’s firm, Globus Cork, transforms sheets of cork into 27 patterns and 38 shades of colored tiles — in designs from houndstooth to fishbone, and in colors from alabaster to tangerine.

“All I do is cork,” said Bollella, 60. “It’s an amazing product, this thing.”

Cork may be an amazing product, but why process it in a city whose nosebleed-high rents, arm-and-a-leg manufacturing wages and multiple taxes have sent manufacturers packing for decades?

“Well, one: you got to be nuts,” Bollella explained.

Small manufacturers like Bollella have found other reasons to remain in New York, despite the untold challenges, and those who have managed to thrive here are the ones who have fine-tuned their products and practices to match the demands of the city.

“This is not for the faint of heart,” said Brian Coleman, CEO of the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a nonprofit that develops urban workspaces for small manufacturers.

“But if you’re creating a premium product,” he added, “there might just be gold in them hills.”

Since the middle of the last century, the city’s manufacturing story has been one of exodus — large companies fleeing to other parts of the country, and the world, where it is cheaper and easier to make things.

The city’s manufacturing workforce shrank from 265,000 jobs in 1990 to 75,000 jobs in 2012, according to the state Labor Department — a 72 percent drop.

The 5,800 or so manufacturing firms that remain in the city are overwhelmingly small-scale, with 98 percent employing 100 or fewer employees, according to 2010 Census figures.

Gone are the widget-producers, but not the designer hat-makers, artisanal soda-bottlers and luxury cabinet-crafters.

“It’s the three F's — fashion, food and furnishings,” said Amy Anderson, planner and industrial business specialist at the Pratt Center for Community Development, and who adds printing and metal fabrication to the list of successful small manufacturing categories.

Modern New York manufacturers are nimble and lean, using skilled workers and advanced technology to assemble premade materials into customized goods, which are churned out in units of one or two, not by the hundreds or thousands, Anderson said.

Adaptability, speed and a premium product are their main advantages over the dirt-cheap competition abroad.

Take Mark Davis, for example, whose six employees at an industrial space in Greenpoint turn vintage plastic into high-end jewelry that sells for an average of $2,000 to $4,000 at Barneys New York stores.

“It is so super-specialized,” Davis said. “Almost all of the pieces are one-of-a-kind.”

Davis also exemplifies why some still choose to build things in New York.

The city is home to an overflowing, more-skilled-than-most labor pool, as well as to seriously sought-after designers and buyers, such as Barneys. And, if a prospective customer or a media company, such as Vogue, in Davis’ case, wants to see a sample, that can be easily arranged.

“I can take a taxi and get it to them in 30 minutes,” Davis said, “when even FedEx isn’t fast enough.”

Of course, the advantages of making things in New York must be weighed against the considerable costs.

For many manufacturers, finding affordable, industrial-zoned real estate presents the most daunting, and sometimes the most costly, challenge.

Space that might have run for $40 per square-foot in the early 2000s now sell for as much as $100 per square-foot, according to Coleman.

The city’s steep taxes and strict regulations also put a perpetual damper on business, some firms complain.

Just Plastics, a longtime acrylics fabricator, recently built plastic displays for a Lady Gaga event and was a supplier for the 9/11 Museum.

But the 30-employee factory in Inwood has been hit with thousands of dollars in fines and fees, ranging from a $2,000 ticket for a missing arrow on an exit sign, to hundreds of dollars to pay for a hazmat team to remove a few cans of old paint, per city requirements, said owner Robert Vermann.

Proximity to the city’s hordes of architects, high-end retailers and museums offers an advantage, Vermann said, “But that advantage costs me a lot of money.”

For some manufacturers, no matter how hard they squint at the ledger, they may not be able to justify the expense of making things in the city — at least not in terms their accountants could embrace.

“I could do it a lot cheaper if I was in Arkansas, Tennessee or Europe — anywhere else,” said Bollella, the cork tile-maker. “But there’s something very important about giving back, contributing, to New York.”