Whelen Engineering’s John Olson shows how U.S. manufacturing can thrive

Two things make John Olson angry — questions about retirement and the passive acceptance that U.S. manufacturing is dying. Olson, the president and CEO of Whelen Engineering Company, of Charlestown, N.H., and Chester, Conn. — one of the state’s most successful, innovative manufacturing companies, with over 1,200 employees — scoffs at both suggestions with equal gruffness.At first glance, the 72-year-old Olson seems more like a relic than a revolutionary. He’s worked at the same company for 53 years and has seen many of his fellow manufacturers go under or move offshore. But Whelen Engineering has not merely survived, it has dramatically expanded while staying true to its niche as a provider of emergency lighting to the aircraft industry and public safety sector.Whelen Engineering is the only major U.S. manufacturer of emergency warning equipment that still makes its products entirely in the United States. “He is rabid about making things in the USA,” said George Bald, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development. “(It’s) amazing. He refuses to buy any components offshore. If he can’t find a U.S. supplier, he makes it himself.”When Olson left the University of New Hampshire in 1958, armed with a mechanical engineering degree, U.S. manufacturing ruled — and he was, like his college roommate, Wendell Jesseman, CEO of New England Wire Technologies, destined to make things.Back then, the majority of New Hampshire’s workforce was employed in manufacturing industries.”I lived through World War II,” he said. “Our ability to win the war was (based) on our capacity to manufacture. Everything we needed we manufactured.”Ambulance lightsAfter college, Olson went to work for George Whelen III, who in 1952 began developing the earliest rotating strobe lighting for anti-collision aircraft beacons.But the Connecticut company’s big breakthrough came when it developed the magnetic mountable emergency lights that could easily convert regular vehicles into emergency ones. In those days, it was common for the small-town funeral director’s hearse to be used as the ambulance.For more than a half century, Olson found himself at the center of an expanding market for emergency technology for police, fire, EMS and other emergency services. In 1976, he became the company’s president.Whelen has four divisions — automotive, industrial, aviation and mass notification. It has 25 sales, service and warehouse facilities throughout the world.One of the company’s signature products is the mounted emergency warning light, the “Liberty Light Bar,” which was featured on the television series “How It’s Made.”Whelen’s “Howler” ambulance siren sends low-frequency tones that make nearby vehicles reverberate. It has been credited with reducing intersection ambulance crashes by half.Whelen also partners with NASCAR as the “Officially Licensed Warning Lights of NASCAR” and sponsors the “Whelen All American Series” races.Granite State graduallyAs Whelen Engineering grew larger and expansion became necessary, Olson felt a tug toward New Hampshire. “I always liked New Hampshire,” he said, “and vowed I’d do that.”The draw was more than emotional, he said.”We’re lucky in New Hampshire,” said Olson, as he ticked off a list of attributes, including low taxes, little regulation and a high quality of life. He gave bipartisan praise to the Legislature “that works for a living and understands what it takes to be competitive” and Gov. John Lynch, who is “a professional manufacturer (and) he’ll do anything for it.”With his operation split between the two states, he has a unique vantage point.”When I bring an employee from Connecticut to New Hampshire,” he said, “it’s a 25 percent pay hike.”They also join a sturdy local workforce. One of these employees, who moved up from Connecticut, told him, “People up here want to work.” Olson said the state should do more to promote itself to smaller manufacturers.Olson’s move to New Hampshire was gradual. Starting in 1987 with a 4,000-square-foot building, the company now has over 285,000 square feet.But his New Hampshire operation hasn’t been without problems. He had a 10-year tussle with National Grid to bring electric power to a new 50,000-square-foot building. “It was empty,” he said of the building, “I couldn’t even turn on the lights — now it’s half full of machinery and people.” It took Olson going to the state’s Public Utilities Commission to get the power supply he needed.Whelen Engineering’s mantra is “quality throughout,” from research to design, production to service. This takes the right mix of people and machinery, Olson said, and the company invests heavily in both.Whelen employees have enjoyed profit sharing since the 1950s, and they stay with the firm an average of 22 years.”The goal has to be better design and more efficiency,” he said. That means designing robots to do monotonous work, increasing responsibility and rewards for employees and staying on top of the newest trends and cutting-edge know-how.For example, certain assembly line positions were hard to fill, with lots of costly employee turnover, so Olson replaced these low-paying, boring jobs with robots and hired people to run them.This, he said, “made the job more interesting and (the employee) made better money” — and now stays longer.This is the future, Olson said, not the rap that U.S. manufacturing can’t compete with low-wage, offshore competitors.”The low-wage argument doesn’t fly,” he said, “Canada and Europe are succeeding at manufacturing.”Buy AmericanIt is Olson’s commitment to buying local that really puts him on the opposite end of a troubling trend.While most companies and consumers are lured away to foreign-made products, he is steadfast in his commitment to buy American. His company has benefited from the grassroots effort to give preference to local companies, but he’s quick to point out that “in 60 years,” his company has received “not a single subsidy, government program or tax incentive.”Olson insists manufacturing can enjoy a rebirth in the United States. The key, he said, is investing in modern technology. Manufacturing produces “jobs for (people of) every ability, from the mentally handicapped to Ph.D.s,” he said.At the state level, he would like to see LLCs taxed similarly to corporations, and on the federal level, a more equitable tariff system.When “I sell products to China, I pay a tariff,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of what you buy at Walmart goes to China.”He also said he worries that schools are pushing “high-minded, not practical, math.”He needs good machinists, draftsman and technical people. Students need to be encouraged to look at careers in manufacturing, he said, but now, “kids don’t want to go into the area where their parents lost their jobs.” For more than five decades, John Olson’s products have been warning people of impending danger — and today he sees the loss of U.S. manufacturing as a serious threat.”America will become a colony if it stops making things,” he said, adding that the situation can be turned around. “It can be done.”