Here in New England: Where the Bells Ring On
This past February he took his wife and five children to Nicaragua. On a street in Granada, he heard the whimsical harmony of a set of ice-cream bells somewhere in the distance and immediately recognized them as Bevin-made. A quick check of the maker’s mark confirmed it. He took a photo of his 5-year-old son, Isaac, with the old woman whose ice-cream cart they’d heard. He hopes his son will have the chance to be the seventh Bevin generation to make bells.
“To me this isn’t just a company,” Matt says. “Walking over the same floorboards as my ancestors, there’s a lot of history here and a lot of reasons to care about it intensely. It makes the difference between something you’re passionate about and something you’re just doing.”
Matt remains as much of a presence at the factory as he can. His other work keeps him away all but a few days a month, so when he’s there he likes to mingle with his employees. Deep in the belly of the plant, he checks in with Abdirahim Hussein, who’s examining a 150-ton press that has stopped working. When Matt goes to shake his hand, Abdirahim flips his wrists and offers the backs of his fingers so as not to smear grease on him.
The stalled press is a monstrous contraption; its steel body looms over a work area where sheet metal and ball bearings are smashed together to form delicate little jingle bells. Over the din of the factory floor, Abdirahim explains the problem. Matt asks whether he wants him to call the foreman over, but Abdirahim waves him off and says he can handle it.
“Not many jobs like this exist anymore,” Matt says as he walks away. The thought irks him visibly. He’s a true believer in the American Dream, and he worries about what will happen to it without manufacturing. After all, it’s hard to climb a ladder if you keep knocking out the lower rungs.
Matt holds Abdirahim up as an example. A Somali immigrant hired through Catholic Charities, he’s worked his way up to floor supervisor. Matt is planning to send him to management class. He believes that these kinds of small investments in his workers will pay dividends in the long run. “When you invest in people,” he says, “you give them a reason to give a crap.”
Making people care is one of the great challenges of any American manufacturer. It’s become such common wisdom that the days of “Made in America” are over that to argue otherwise sometimes gets you labeled as crazy. But American industry isn’t dead yet, and signs of that can be seen throughout the Bevin factory.
In one corner of the break room–in territory traditionally ceded to Coke or Pepsi–stands a vending machine stocked with Hosmer Mountain sodas. They’re from a tiny bottling firm based in Willimantic, Connecticut–one of a small web of New England manufacturers doing business with the Bevins. “There are a lot of little guys that are sort of dependent on other little guys like us,” Matt explains, ticking through a list of local contractors and clients.
He mentions a final Bevin client, one who’s based at the North Pole, repeating an old family joke about being Santa’s exclusive supplier of sleigh bells. Then, with perhaps a little too much sarcasm, he adds, “Santa, luckily, hasn’t outsourced to China yet.”
Unfortunately, to a large extent the rest of us have. “People say, ‘These Walmarts, they come in and ruin the mom-and-pops,’” Matt notes. “But the same people who say that don’t shop at those little places. They go to Walmart, where they can get it cheap.” He hopes to see the day when “Made in America” receives the same treatment as “organic,” with big-box retailers setting aside space for those products and giving people the choice to pay a little more to support something they believe in.