As the biggest retailer in not just America but the world, Walmart is poised to make a major impact on U.S. manufacturing as it invests $250 billion in American-made goods through 2023. Indeed, the impact is already being felt. The brand has longstanding partnerships with many American firms big and small. Their latest initiative to ramp up U.S. manufacturing aims to further strengthen these ties with homegrown American businesses. One of those businesses is Knoxville, TN-based garden company Dalen Products, most well-known for owl statues that act as a natural pest controller.
For over 35 years, Dalen Products has been producing gardening goods and theirs is a true American success story. From their first patent to a roster now 75 products deep, the company aims to balance ingenuity, function, and charm. Founder Neal Caldwell started the company from his Knoxville, Tennessee home. Blending his professional background as a design engineer with his gardening hobby, Caldwell invented his fortuitous first product that would spark many more.
"I knew that gardening Cold Frames [miniature greenhouses] require babysitting — you couldn't really leave them because they would overheat during the daytime or freeze at night. There was a real need to have one that could control venting on its own," he said. Drawing inspiration from control products at his day job, Caldwell developed a thermostatic mechanism that would moderate the frame independently. It solved a need in the industry and sold well thanks to placement in a mail order catalog. It also gave him the impetus to commit to his own business.
As Dalen's range of products expanded, retailers beyond the catalog world took notice. Eventually, Caldwell shifted away from performing all the duties himself. "I was actually working 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week," he said. "I performed all the functions of the businesses — I didn't hire anyone. I was committed and loved every minute of it."
The company was built on pure hard work. Caldwell navigated product development and manufacturing with ease, but struggled with marketing. When he was approached by a retailer about two new products — an inflatable snake and an owl that act as natural enemy pest repellents — Caldwell was able to catch his breath and build up a staff.
Since then, he explains, two things have held true: "We treat our employees and our vendors with dignity and respect. We manufacture and sell quality products that give our end customer lasting value."
As Dalen's products grew more complicated, they shifted some of their production from their blow-molded operation away from the U.S. into China. All the while, they repeatedly evaluated the economic feasibility of returning more production to the U.S. Walmart would ultimately make it possible for this to happen.
"When Walmart implemented the Made in the USA initiative, we decided to make another attempt [to bring production back to the U.S.]"
"When Walmart implemented the Made in the USA initiative, we decided to make another attempt. [Our] owl sales were on the rise with a focus on non-chemical pest control and we had additional support from our Walmart buyer to increase store counts," Caldwell explained. This financial support, coupled with employee excitement, lead to engineering and tool development — and ultimately brought production back to their Knoxville, TN factory.
Small businesses, expanding companies, and everyday workers form the backbone of manufacturing in the U.S. Consumer and retailer support keeps production in America — and keeps Americans employed. Dalen has witnessed this firsthand with Walmart.
"This opportunity created advantages for both our existing employees as well as new and temporary employees working in our plant," Caldwell continued. Walmart allowed for extended production in a market that's highly seasonal. In fact, the Made in USA initiative has allowed Dalen to balance out the seasonality of their business leading to more year-round employment. This impact is even felt outside the factory through improved business for local vendor partners that contract with Dalen for shipping, label production, and raw materials sourcing.
Jobs are created, pay goes up, and the economy around the factory rises up with it. Dalen is one of many success stories across the country, where investment in U.S. manufacturing is creating quality jobs with a ripple effect on the surrounding economy. But Caldwell is the first to point out that it isn't all about money.
"When we bring new products to market that are made in USA," Caldwell concluded, "our employees have a sense of pride and ownership, and you can see heroic individual efforts in evidence to make it happen."