Don't Be a Stranger
August is just around the corner, and it’s the perfect time to host a member of Congress at your facility while they’re out on their summer recess. In 2022, every member of the U.S. House of Representatives, one third of the U.S. Senators, and a majority of state lawmakers are running for election.
With a little help from AFS’s Government Affairs office, you can extend an invitation this month and get the ball rolling for a first-hand meeting and tour right at your foundry.
“Whoah, stop right there,” you may be thinking. “That political stuff isn’t for me, plus we’re way too busy to get caught up with that this year.”
For every reason you may come up with to avoid engaging with elected officials, there’s an even more compelling business advantage available by making time for personal interaction with policymakers. Bottom line: It’s the first step toward building a relationship that gives you contact with decision-makers who could directly affect your company ... on a multitude of levels.
“We are an industry that has a lot of touch points to government, and policy really impacts our fortunes, more so than probably most industries,” said Sachin Shivaram, president of AFS Corporate Member Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry (WAF) in Manitowoc. “So it’s an industry where having good government relations really makes a difference.” The company routinely schedules plant tours as a means for building solid connections with both state and federal elected officials—in April, the company’s newly acquired foundry, Dee Manufacturing in Crookston, Minnesota-hosted Rep. Michelle Fishbach (R-MN). Crookston Mayor Dale Stainbrook and Polk County Commissioner Joan Lee joined the plant tour, as well, and saw first hand the process of turning raw materials into finished aluminum castings while learning about the key sectors they supply.
Dee Manufacturing Vice President and General Manager Paul Cwikla led the tour and took the opportunity to underscore (1) the challenges of capital expenditure return on investment, (2) the cost of freight, especially in remote areas like theirs, as well as truck driver shortages, and (3) the serious dearth of skilled labor impacting their foundry and the U.S. metalcasting industry.
Andy Renkey, V-process foundry group president at AFS Member Harmony Castings, Harmony, Pennsylvania, and a member of the AFS Board of Directors, noted: “If you’re not educating the lawmakers on what you do, what concerns you have, and what impacts you, then they’re going to hear from other individuals about what their concerns are. Whether it’s local, state or federal, the better a lawmaker understands the foundry business, the more likely they’re going to gear their decision-making toward helping you instead of hurting you.”
Knowing and Being Known
Gaining first-hand access isn’t an overnight feat, but the time and effort invested in the relationship-building––including onsite, in-person tours––can pay off. A few years ago, Renkey was able to help a customer because of his relationship with Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), who has twice visited Harmony Castings. The customer, a marine parts-maker, has a patented safety device used by U.S. Special Forces for underwater propellers and wanted to be able to sell the product outside of the military market––his congressman, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) initiated a bill that would make this possible, but they needed bipartisan co-sponsorship. Renkey contacted Rep. Kelly, who jumped on board immediately. Renkey was also able to secure support from Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) with the help of AFS’s Government Affairs office. Besides expanding the markets for a customer’s casting, the efforts went a long way toward solidifying customer loyalty, too.
JB Brown, CEO at BCI Solutions in Bremen, Indiana, a longtime AFS Corporate Member and Government Affairs Committee member, has had numerous opportunities to weigh-in with federal decision-makers, most recently giving testimony on June 9 at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s hearing on dependency on China in the global supply chain. Following in the footsteps of his parents who began forging congressional relationships in the 1990s, Brown is committed to the process of knowing and being known among his representatives and senators, both state and federal––and because his door is continually open to them, he said they are open to his perspectives.
“I will say there have been numerous times when bills have come up, which we were either for or against, and because we have a relationship, we can actually text that member of Congress, or, if we know the staffer really well, we can send them an email,” Brown said. “If I know it’s a busy day on the Hill, many times I’ll go to the chief of staff because I know that that message is guaranteed to get to whoever I’m trying to reach.
“I don’t abuse that by any means. But I do contact them directly when it’s necessary for something we feel is pretty serious.”
Jordan Brown, BCI Solutions vice president, recalled how their established Capitol Hill friendships also paid off when COVID lockdowns hit the country spring of 2020. “We were able to have some direct communication about why foundries needed to be considered essential businesses,” she said.
Meanwhile, the work of Patrick Ameen, vice president of industry relations at AFS Corporate Member Amsted Rail based in Chicago with 15 facilities nationwide, is further proof that commitment to relationship-building with lawmakers and their staffs produces the fruit of being recognized, welcomed, and respected among politicians and their staffs. Thanks in part to many foundry and facility tours he’s arranged, Ameen, who is a member of the AFS Board of Directors, has sometimes been escorted by congressional staffers through the labyrinth of congressional offices and underground tunnels to meet with high-profile representatives and senators, who have stepped out of Committee meetings or party Caucus rooms in the Capitol for quick discussions on specific issues.
Amsted Rail has worked on several pieces of legislation that bar federal funds from going to Chinese state-owned rail companies.
His insights are at times actively sought by policymakers, too. Once, following a facility visit Ameen had coordinated, a congressman’s legislative director called him from the House floor; a bill was coming up for vote and the legislator wanted to know Amsted’s position on it before he voted.
Show and Tell
Hosting a plant tour for an elected official, or even a state or federal agency official, is the foundry’s big moment to educate a captive audience who, despite whatever power and notoriety they may have, probably know little or nothing about the metalcasting industry. Or if they do, they may have 50-year-old stigmas locked in their heads of dark, dangerous, and dirty factories rather than the modern, well-lit, safety-focused, and clean operations they are, critical to industries ranging from defense, aerospace, and medical, to water, agriculture, infrastructure/construction, energy, and more. And most are also unaware of how much recycling metalcasters do. While AFS tells the metalcasting story in Washington, with full-time representation for the metalcasting industry on congressional and executive-branch matters, the foundry can actually show their story with a site visit. AFS Government Affairs works to cultivate relationships with legislators and provide input on bills and regulations that have impacts on the U.S. metalcasting industry, but nothing is more important to the AFS advocacy effort that constituent relationships with lawmakers.
The reaction to the fire, molten metal, and sparks-a-flyin’ processes that complete a final casting is almost always one of jaw-dropping fascination.
“This is what real manufacturing looks like, and we’re the backbone of the United States,” Brown tells officials at plant tours. “This is the stuff in your car that get you from point A to point B, and the stuff in your train and your airplane. You want clean clothes? There are castings in that machine, too.
“We were actually having so many visitors who wanted to get educated, and not always a member of Congress, so we put up a really nice display of castings in our front lobby, showing a wide range of castings, the customer name, the part number, and what it does. You don’t always have time for a full tour––sometimes you only get 20 minutes. But this way, we at least show them, ‘Hey look, this goes in a Mack truck, this goes in a John Deere tractor, this goes in a military Humvee.’”
According to AFS Vice President of Government Affairs Stephanie Salmon, nothing has more impact on a lawmaker’s understanding of the U.S. metalcasting industry than a visit to a foundry. Likewise, they provide opportunities for lawmakers to meet with their constituents, hear success stories and the challenges metalcasters face. At the same time, these legislators see first hand how their policies work in real life.
“Show them what you’re doing at the foundry and why it’s important to everyone’s everyday life, and tell them how many people you’re employing,” she said. In addition, other key information to share includes new capital investments, salary and benefits, deferral, state and local taxes paid, energy use, and support of community charities. I encourage metalcasters and our suppliers to take a proactive step and invite your lawmaker to take a tour of your facility. It will give you an opportunity to build an important connection and relationship, as well as a chance to share your concerns.”
AFS members who have hosted tours note the importance of remaining politically agnostic in terms of who gets invited—the consensus is, if they represent you, extend the invitation.
“We’ve had very good personal relationships with people on the other side of the aisle, even though we disagreed 100% on some issues,” said Brown. We had such a great relationship with former Senator Joe Donnelly, although he’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican. He would stop by here once a month just for doughnuts and coffee.”
If August is too soon to make tour arrangements, all is not lost. Salmon recommends aiming for a Monday or Friday to have a member of Congress out for a visit in their district, when it’s less likely they’ll have votes on the Hill. State legislators’ schedules vary state by state, as some legislatures are only in session the first four or five months of the year while others work year-round.
Being prepared is key for a successful tour, but it needn’t be overwhelming. Renkey said if your foundry holds any kind of events, even for employees and their families, start with that planning template and build from there. Sources who have been around the block with these visits strongly advise clear communication with the official’s staff to understand how much time you’ll have with the lawmaker (e.g. what’s the hard stop?), how many people will be accompanying him or her, and what specific interests they may have. It’s also a good idea to research the member of Congress in advance to know what committees they serve on and what they’re passionate about.
Equipped with this information, develop an itinerary that starts with a sit-down meeting so you can properly introduce your company and articulate two or three key legislative issues or business challenges that impact your foundry. Do this first rather than after the plant tour, in case time gets short as the event winds down. For the tour, map the route carefully, highlighting any new equipment or processes and including opportunities to see a pour.
Other tips and ideas from foundry sources include:
- Provide adequate PPE for each visitor in the group who will participate in the tour.
- Order a large, customized welcome banner for your outdoor entry as well as some welcome signage in the indoor reception area.
- Hire a photographer for the entire event and share images with the lawmaker’s staff afterward.
- Involve some of your employees––it may be their first or only chance to meet a government official. Include them in the meeting time and/or on the plant floor. This is a great way to reinforce how much you value them.
- Have an agenda but remain flexible. Plans can alter unexpectedly.
- If you’re a union shop, invite union leadership.
- Know in advance if media are being invited, and don’t be afraid to set guidelines and maintain control––it’s your event, after all. Manage photo-taking and set necessary limitations if, for example, you’ve got defense parts or other proprietary work in the building. And don’t let a reporter hi-jack your guest who has come to see your company.
- Be mindful of ethics rules––legislators and their staff are not permitted to accept gifts other than small, low-cost items, such as a company ball cap, pen or coffee mug.
Want to make your tour stand apart from all the other tours your official will do that day? Sources agree, witnessing molten metal is pretty darn memorable. But for added impact, humanize the visit with a real employee and his or her story. At the end of the day, politicians enjoy meeting voters and relish true stories of overcoming hardship and achieving excellent American manufacturing employment.
During election years, politicians may come to you looking for a stop to stump, and it can certainly gain recognition for your business on the national stage if you say yes, even with little advance notice. Shivaram and his colleague Bob Braun at WAF were having an after-hours beer late one Friday afternoon in 2020 when they got a call from the Biden campaign asking if the presidential candidate could make an appearance at the foundry on the upcoming Monday morning.
“We had to make a very quick decision,” Shivaram said. “When someone of that magnitude asks, ‘can we visit your plant and have a big event?’, it doesn’t matter what your politics are. That type of visibility is such an opportunity, and we just seized it.
“So, it’s Friday night—Bob and I came right back to the plant, and Bob worked all weekend with a couple of guys, rearranging areas to create a stage. Bob himself was driving the forklift around! And we made it happen. When Monday came around, [Biden] was here, and the Secret Service was here, and the dogs, and it was a zoo, with press everywhere, and people demonstrating for and against him outside. But it really put us on the map for other leaders. We’ve become kind of a ‘must stop’ for both parties now.”
Choose Your Messages
When it comes to deciding what to include in your prepared remarks for your government guest, keep in mind that less is more. Identify up to three key issues critical to your business and make those points plainly, without hyperbole or political blaming. Steer clear of personal, social issues and keep the focus on business, whether it’s Buy American, supply chain and trade policy, inflation, EPA and OSHA challenges, domestic energy and raw materials development, workforce, permitting and infrastructure, or whatever else is obstructing your ability to produce castings and create jobs.
Fun facts and memorable data points can make a strong impression. Salmon recalled that when Waupaca Foundry hosted Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), staff said the company melts approximately the weight of the Eiffel Tower daily across its operations. “Think of things that everyone can relate to that will help them remember you and your industry.”
Brown added, “Above all, be yourself. Don’t try to schmooze them. And don’t be afraid to disagree, respectfully, and let them know if something is going to hurt our industry. Ask plenty of questions and give them a chance to explain––there might be another side of the story the media hasn’t reported.”
As soon as the dust clears from the group’s departing vehicles, get moving on your follow-up, which initially should be just a warm, written thank-you sent electronically and, albeit more slowly, through the mail––both. Include digital photos that were taken, too. Ameen at Amsted Rail puts the entire photo shoot on a CD and hand delivers it to congressional staffers the next time he’s on the Hill. He recommends stating highlights from the visit in your thank-you letter, as well as the issues you discussed.
Then begin thinking about next steps, whether it’s following up on some information the lawmaker requested, highlighting a new capital investment project, or just being mindful of how you can keep in touch. An excellent way to reconnect with your federal lawmakers is at the 2023 AFS Fly-In next spring. Always an engaging meeting to learn about important policies and to network with AFS peers, the Fly-In provides an ideal opportunity to visit in pre-scheduled meetings with your representatives and senators in the states where you have facilities. Foundry leaders from the same state can add extra impact by coordinating to meet with a lawmaker as a group. Contact Stephanie Salmon for assistance at the AFS Washington office––she’ll be happy to walk you through the process, answer your questions, and provide key materials including a sample invitation and thank you letter. And going forward, don’t be a stranger.