How Rhode Island Maintains a Manufacturing Stronghold
Manufacturers have flourished in the state for centuries
Rhode Island’s role as a leader in manufacturing began more than 200 years ago, during the Industrial Revolution. The state’s reputation can be traced back to 1793, when Samuel Slater founded the nation’s first water-powered cotton-spinning plant along the Blackstone River in Pawtucket.
Through major technological and digital advances, the Ocean State remains a manufacturing powerhouse today, with companies that make products including auto parts, jewelry, food and beverage ingredients, and pharmaceuticals. “From the Slater Mill forward, Rhode Island has been setting the standard and making monumental contributions to the field of manufacturing,” says Stefan Pryor, the state’s secretary of commerce.
With its unique history, competitive workforce and powerful partnerships, the state has a long track record as a place where manufacturers new and old can succeed.
A place with staying power
Cooley Group got its start in Rhode Island more than 90 years ago and has stayed in the state even as it has expanded globally. In the beginning, Cooley made cotton awnings. Today, the company uses polymer chemistry to make covers, liners and other products used all over the globe—liners for some of the world’s largest drinking reservoirs, the roof of the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and inflatable military boats, for example.
The company also maintains a tie to its origins by making awnings and signs, including those used by Starbucks stores throughout the country.
Daniel Dwight, president and CEO of Cooley Group, says the company recruits employees internationally, but it also benefits from the local talent pool. That difficult-to-replicate asset is one of the reasons the company has kept its headquarters, research and development program and other important facilities in the state for all these years.
“Rhode Island has an overwhelming number of great schools with great talent that we look to recruit at the professional level,” Dwight says. “And at the manufacturing level, we find there’s both a strong talent pool in the state and a really strong work ethic.”
Drawing new business
Finlays, a global manufacturer of tea extracts, was a newcomer to Rhode Island in 2014 when it acquired Autocrat Coffee Mill, a market leader in coffee extracts. Finlays decided then to move its headquarters from New Jersey to Rhode Island. Today, the company’s ingredients flavor many of the bottled coffee and tea drinks available in grocery stores, as well as most coffee-flavored ice creams in the U.S.
Shortly after Finlays took over Autocrat, the company developed plans to open a research and development center and a pilot manufacturing plant that would spur innovation. Steve Olyha, CEO of Finlays North America, says the center was crucial to helping Finlays keep up with consumer trends and maintain its top position in the market. “We needed a world-class facility to do that,” Olyha says. “But initially we had not thought that Rhode Island was going to be the place for it.”
The company searched nationally for a site to open its new center, and negotiated with economic developers and government agencies in some of the states it considered. Ultimately, Rhode Island was the winner. The biggest draws, Olyha says, were access to an excellent workforce, including talent and research partners from local universities. In addition to employing students in internships and adding recent graduates to its staff, Finlays has also found the universities to be a great place to run focus groups that help them stay attuned to the behaviors of younger consumers.
Support for manufacturers
In 2015, the state launched an innovation voucher program to help companies foot the bill for research and development and to help manufacturers partner with outside researchers.
And to prepare students to join the workforce, the state offers Career & Technical Education programs, which operate at more than 50 high schools, charter schools, postsecondary institutions and adult skills training facilities. “This program helps build the pipeline of skilled workers, and enables our young people to seek out the well-paying, family-sustaining jobs that are offered in manufacturing,” Pryor says.
Dwight says the supportive environment manufacturers find in Rhode Island makes the place special. “The folks in the state know us, and we know them. We get to have collaborative relationships,” he says. “The governor spent half a day in our facility last month—half a day. In another state, we wouldn’t get that kind of attention.”