The Bob Barker Company started in the ’70s as a couple of guys selling slushie machines to convenience stores across North Carolina. One thing led to another, it’s now the largest supplier of mattresses and other supplies for jails and prisons across the country.
Last week, Bob Barker, the company’s founder and president, said the town, and the country in general, should be able to sustain a manufacturing renaissance.
“I think eventually you’re going to see more manufacturing coming back to the United States from overseas – China and India, places like that,” Barker said at his company’s Fuquay-Varina headquarters during a celebration of International Manufacturing Day.
Fuquay-Varina’s leaders hope he’s right.
Jim Seymour, Fuquay-Varina’s economic development director, said one of the town’s main goals is to recruit more manufacturing companies and help existing companies grow.
“Manufacturers build communities. That’s the biggest thing,” he said “It’s no longer the typical smokestack manufacturing. It’s technological.”
When a company is looking to build a new plant, its primary concern is the local blue-collar workforce, and Fuquay-Varina has a good one, Seymour said.
The town also has the advantage of hosting the main campus of Wake Tech Community College, which can train potential employees in welding, drafting, electronics, engine maintenance and other industrial skills.
Inside the Bob Barker Company’s distribution center on Purfoy Road, aisles are marked with flags showing the countries of origin of the products on the shelves. The American flag has one aisle, surrounded by flags from China, Bangladesh, India, Mexico and other locations where wages are cheap and regulations are lax.
But despite the higher cost of doing business stateside, the company employes about 90 to 100 people in two Fuquay-Varina locations, in addition to satellite offices in Utah and China.
Products are shipped in from around the world, and local workers prepare them for their final stage. They combine toiletries in baggies; turn spools of plastic fabric into pillow cases, mattresses, aprons and shower curtains; and silkscreen thousands of pants and shirts daily before loading everything on trucks headed north, south, east and west.
But in Barker’s vision of the future, fewer of those products will be shipped overseas. Ideally, he said, they will be made in the United States, a vision supported by town officials.
Earlier this year, the Bob Barker Company partnered with the town’s three other largest private employers – John Deere, Turf Care and TE Connectivity – to create what’s known as the Big 4.
They work with Seymour’s office to share rumors about companies that might want to expand or relocate to the area and to talk about environmental issues. The Barker warehouse, for example, uses all recycled cardboard boxes and has solar panels on its roof that can generate 500 kilowatts of energy.
Seymour said bringing in new or expanded companies would have obvious benefits for the town, as well as significant secondary benefits.
“It creates jobs and it creates tax base,” he said. “But it’s not just people coming in with their boxed lunch and, like in ‘The Flintstones,’ sliding off the dinosaur at five o’clock. They’re leaving for lunch and helping our restaurants, and all sorts of other indirect benefits happen.”
And just as Barker’s company has profited from the country’s prison-industrial complex, Seymour said he hopes others can find ways to benefit from the military-industrial complex.
The U.S. spends as much on defense as the next nine countries combined, with billions going to private contractors.
And as the military and intelligence community become increasingly tech-savvy, Seymour said he hopes Fuquay-Varina will prove to have a good location and workforce.
Fort Bragg, home of the country’s airborne and special operations commands, is one of the largest military installations in the world with about 70,000 military and civilian residents on base. It is next to Fayetteville and about an hour south of Fuquay-Varina.
Several years ago, the state ramped up its efforts to recruit defense contractors. They paid for booths and pavilions at national conferences with the hope that once companies learned about North Carolina, the state’s demographics would convince them to move here.
“It’s not just RTP,” he said. “We’re halfway between there and Fort Bragg. And we really want more military technology manufacturing.”