Wahl Clipper has fought to hold onto its core values in an age of increasing globalization, but it hasn’t always been easy.
While its larger competitors were outsourcing jobs, the Sterling-based worldwide leader in consumer personal care products has continued to invest at home, continually increasing its local workforce and putting millions into the expansion of its headquarters. Ground will be broken on another building project next year.
Walmart, the company’s largest customer, brought its “Made in America” movement to Sterling on Monday, drawing a large group of politicians, local leaders and employees of both companies. Central to Walmart’s initiative, which began in 2013, is the retail giant’s pledge to buy an additional $250 billion in American-made products by 2023.
“We’re trying to do one of these events in every state this year, and we thought this would be a good opportunity to highlight Wahl Clipper’s new facility and the investments they continue to make here,” said Kevin Thompson, director of public affairs at Walmart.
Wahl Clipper has more than 1,000 workers in Sterling, and it attributes about 100 jobs to its longtime partnership with Walmart. While navigating turbulent economic cycles, Wahl Clipper hasn’t laid off a worker in about 50 years, a source of great pride for CEO and President Greg Wahl.
The manufacturing landscape, however, is very different from the one his grandfather, Leo Wahl, had in mind when he founded the company 98 years ago.
“With globalization, competitors much larger than us were sending jobs to the Far East, and while others were outsourcing, we were winning awards for exporting our products,” Wahl said.
China became an important part of its growth strategy, and exporting to that market carries a 30 percent tariff.
“International playing fields aren’t always fair, but we fought to succeed,” Wahl said.
Wahl Clipper has eight manufacturing sites worldwide, but 70 percent of its revenues are generated from the Sterling plant. It’s also remained a private company, making it easier to stick with its long-term formula for success.
“There’s a big difference between having an operational focus and being investment-driven,” Wahl said. “We thought long and hard about long-term success, and for us it’s about people and process – we aspire to make the best products in the world.”
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, State Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia, and State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, were on hand for the event.
Bustos has worked on the Democrat-led “Make It In America” initiative, a package of bills that aim to create middle-class jobs through a rebirth of manufacturing. Buying American products and investing in workforce training is at the core of the plan.
“We have a field hearing next month for our “Make It In America” caucus, and the focus will be on how we can make more products in America,” Bustos said. “If we could all focus on American products and partnerships, our state and country would be very different places.”
Walmart aims to create an estimated 1 million jobs through its 10-year manufacturing plan, and the company says the emphasis on American-made products is building momentum.
“Our customers have told us that second to price, where products are made influences their purchasing decisions,” said Cindi Marsiglio, Walmart’s vice president for U.S. manufacturing.
As part of its initiative, Walmart has sponsored several events that allow American companies to make a pitch for the retailer to carry its products or expand its presence on Walmart’s shelves.
Key Wahl Clipper Dates:
- 1911 – Company formed by Leo Wahl.
- 1919 – Manufacturing begins.
- 1940 – Expansion into plastic molding.
- 1950 – Company starts exporting products.
- 1957 – Move made from 407 E. Third St. to current Sterling site.
- 1997 – Greg Wahl named company president.
- 2009 – Company turns 90.