[caption id="attachment_220854" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Jennifer and David McMillian have grown their small business JennyGems from their home and now into a large space. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
HARBESON — Jenny McMillian is not a fan of waste. Just ask the woodshop at JennyGems.“We don’t have scraps around here,” said her husband David McMillian, holding a piece of baltic birch wood that is cut in a 4-inch-long rectangle. “She’ll say you can do anything with what we have leftover.”“That’s because I can find a use for it,” Jenny said. “I always do.”
[caption id="attachment_220849" align="alignleft" width="300"] Assembler Patricia Collins works at JennyGems in Harbeson. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
Sure enough, three of those rectangles — sanded, painted and printed with words — can become three-word slogans, perfect for decorating a kitchen table or a mantle. Around the JennyGems retail shop, a group of those miniature signs read “He is Risen,” themed for Easter, or “Seas the Day,” perfect for a beach house.JennyGems specializes in box or flat signs, and ever since the company pulled production from China in 2020, all products are assembled, painted, printed and packed out of a former doughnut shop 8 miles away from Lewes. It’s not the traditional manufacturing plant most would have in mind, but with a team of 20 employees, the shop can assemble 260 box signs, paint a few hundred by hand, and print somewhere between 800 to 1,500 signs per day through a UV printer. The company ships about 2,000 orders a day, and last year the company did roughly 200,000 sales. With the exceptional growth, JennyGems is looking to tap into more wholesale contracts with small retailers, maintain its hold on big box stores like Walmart and online stores like Etsy and Amazon. The McMillians are looking for more warehouse space, and will soon be moving into the Delaware Coastal Business Park, building a second building for the woodshop.“I almost want to look up my old shop instructor to let him know what we’ve been doing,” David McMillian joked. “I never thought this is what I’d be doing.”In Delaware, manufacturing is big business with $3.63 billion in manufactured goods exported in 2020, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.There are 525 manufacturing firms in the First State with less than 100 employees, or about 91% of all manufacturers, according to data from the Census County Business Patterns compiled in 2021. About 7,600 people work at these micro-manufacturers.“Small and medium-sized firms are more common than people might think of when they picture manufacturing,” said Kurt Foreman, president and CEO of Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the state’s economic development agency.Location, location
[caption id="attachment_220852" align="alignleft" width="300"] JennyGems employs a handful of employees, but it is looking to soon grow in a new warehouse. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
For the McMillians, Delaware has been less about business and more about home. Jenny McMillian started the company when she was laid off from MBNA in 2008, and started selling used books and postcards before tapping into her crafty side for her first sign.The couple moved from Newark and came to Millsboro, deciding to invest in JennyGems in 2015 with a nearby storefront. When it came time to find a new place, they hoped to stay close to home.“There’s not much out there in terms of our needs in western Sussex, unless you want to go to Seaford, and that was a drive for us and our workforce,” David McMillian said.But with Miller Metal Fabrication in Bridgeville, it’s also about staying true to the roots but also being in the right spot for clients and materials. The metalworking company started as a food processing part enterprise in the backyard of Martin Miller. Nowadays, the company makes a wide range of parts for clients — past clients included Volvo, Vulcan and the U.S. Department of Defense — in Baltimore, Philadelphia and D.C. With the aid of state grants, Miller Metal is planning to expand its storage space in the near future.“We’re smack-dab in the Mid-Atlantic region, and we can truck a bulk of products to clients in the region. It can get a little difficult without major access to an interstate nearby, but that’s how it goes,” Miller Metal CFO Michael Elehwany said.Some of Delaware’s top marketers, including Foreman, Kent Economic Partnership Executive Director Linda Parkowski and Sussex County Economic Development Director Bill Pfaff all told the DBT that Delaware’s location plays a key role in attracting new manufacturers.
[caption id="attachment_195320" align="alignright" width="300"] Delaware Coastal Business Park may see around 150 new employees at the great Outdoors Cottages plant when it opens for business. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING[/caption]
For example, Great Outdoors Cabin manufacturer is also moving to the Coastal Business Park because of the “favorable location to acquire materials” and central location for shipping up and down the East Coast.“That access to the East Coast is critical, and central Delaware fits that,” Parkowski said. “It’s also why we’re seeing more interest in rail access, because of the supply chain issues. If a company can get raw materials shipped directly, that’s a major win.”The struggle, however, remains getting sites ready for construction.“We’re constantly getting calls for light manufacturing, and the real issue right now is the supply we have,” Pfaff said. “They’re looking for shovel-ready sites, with natural gas, sewer and water, and in a great spot like we have.”Cost of businessMeanwhile, in Baltimore, Steve Manlove is still renovating the office he bought in 2020 to make room for Avalon Industries, a textile product manufacturer. His other company, ICON Plastics, which manufactures plastic containers and carrier trays for greenhouses, has already settled in last year.Avalon’s past major clients include Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Textron and Kratos-Gichner Shelters. Its products include covers for electronic devices and firearms, and have been found on submarines and space stations.“The cost of doing business in Maryland was making it harder to compete with our competitors in the Midwest,” Manlove said. “Our clients are looking for any way to cut costs, and when you deal with the federal government, if someone offers the same service for 2 cents cheaper, they’ll take it.”In the “Location Matters” 2021 study, Delaware ranks in the Top 3 overall across eight hypothetical projects, including finishing first or second in all manufacturing projects. Maryland’s high property tax on equipment may be hard for firms to swallow, meanwhile Delaware enjoys a low property tax that does not include equipment or inventory.“Generally, we see [manufacturers] seek competitive costs, accessibility to supply chains and customers. Our diverse three counties make it ideal, but it always depends on a particular location and the competitive cost structure makes us attractive,” Foreman said.Workforce woesLike every company, manufacturing companies in the First State are also struggling to find and retain employees. Building up a pipeline of talent is critical to ensuring the success of manufacturers, and Foreman notes that it’s getting more competitive.“I’ve heard consultants describe recruiting as more of a marketing task than a HR effort these days,” he said. “Since there’s more options at the moment, companies need to think about how they come across to folks. Labor sheds don’t follow state or jurisdictional boundaries.”To continue building the foundation, the Delaware Pathways program continues to encourage manufacturing, and the program has 23,000 students enrolled right now, and another state apprentice program has 400 employer sponsors.But these days, much of the manufacturing work is less about working with your hands and more of how to understand technology. JennyGems invested in CNC routers and printers to boost output, while Miller Metal uses automated laser machines, and is reportedly looking to invest in a tube laser.“Most of the advanced work now is in computer skills, tech-based. While we do look for welders, we’re looking for someone who can really operate a computer while some of the work is on the conveyor belt,” Elehwany said.
[caption id="attachment_220851" align="alignright" width="200"] UV printer Josh Hicks works at JennyGems in Harbeson, one of many growing small manufacturers in Delaware. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
He also pointed out that another side-effect of the pandemic was people deciding to move to scenic locations, and in eastern Sussex, you can be at the beach within minutes. It’s actually the reason he left his job in D.C. seven years ago and moved to the beach.“Word is getting out, and you may start to see more people with those skills or even those who can support operations like IT and otherwise remote in,” he added.JennyGems and its unique manufacturing product hasn’t been alone in the workforce woes, as Jenny McMillian noted that there were roughly a dozen people who were hired and quit in the last 18 months. But she’s used the opportunity to take management coaching lessons and understand more about being a leader.“I came from the background of having a job alone was an accomplishment, but this generation wants to have a job where they do something that they’re proud of,” she said. “I’ve posted job listings for graphic design, and one of my employees asked me if they could try it. They’re self-taught, and now they’re our designer.”“I do have a sense of pride, and I hope my employees do too,” Jenny McMillian said. “We’re making something with our own two hands, and we’re making a multi-million dollar business here.”