Kathie Leonard, CEO of Auburn Manufacturing, had some choice words for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited Washington last week.
“Stop cheating,” she said.
Her directive comes after more than a year of battling Chinese manufacturers who were dumping heat-resistant industrial textiles into U.S. markets, the same type of product that Auburn Manufacturing has been making for nearly four decades. When foreign manufacturers “dump” products in the U.S., they sell them here for less than it costs to make them in their home countries so they can monopolize new markets.
The beneficiary of more than 20 different government subsidies, the Chinese manufacturers were selling their products well below the price of domestic producers, a situation that resulted in the loss of about 30 percent of Auburn Manufacturing’s business and layoffs of roughly 25 percent of the production staff, said Leonard.
But she vowed to fight. Leonard hired a D.C. law firm at considerable cost to take on the illegal dumping and brought her case before the U.S. International Trade Commission in January 2016. Maine’s congressional delegation testified on her behalf and the commission issued a final ruling in her favor this February.
The commission imposed permanent tariffs of 200-300 percent on the Chinese products, leveling the playing field. Leonard said she is wooing back the customers she lost – “this proves I wasn’t gouging anyone,” she says – and she has rehired some of the employees she had to lay off.
Sen. Angus King, who invited Leonard as his guest to the State of the Union address in January 2016, has taken up the cause. In mid-March he sent a letter to President Trump asking him to increase funding for the U.S. trade enforcement and negotiating agencies. He also encouraged the president to examine the process of trade investigations and the financial and administrative burdens placed on small businesses that want to pursue them.
“The financial burden of a lengthy investigation is a particularly difficult obstacle to overcome for cash-strapped smaller businesses; I personally know of several businesses in Maine that chose not to file petitions because of this challenge,” King wrote in his letter.
As of Wednesday, King’s staff had not received a reply to the letter. But some national news organizations are reporting that the Trump administration is considering an executive order that would target unfair dumping.
OXFORD NETWORKS NO MORE
Wednesday marked the day that Oxford Networks lost its Maine accent. The company, founded in 1900 (just 24 years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone), was originally Oxford County Telephone and Telegraph Co. It was started by a businessman, Alva Andrews, who wanted a phone connection between his family’s funeral business in South Woodstock and the West Paris railroad station.
From there it grew to be one of the largest telecom providers in the Northeast, and one of the first companies to create a high-speed, fiber-optic network that far outpaced existing copper-based landlines. I recall former CEO Rick Anstey making the rounds at business functions in the early 2000s with a section of fiber optic cable to show people how the little strands of glass could convey data at lightning speeds versus conventional copper wiring (such as 22 minutes to download a file on copper versus 8 seconds on fiber optics.)
The company also holds a special place in Lewiston-Auburn because Oxford Networks and Northeast Bank (another business with Oxford County roots) decided to anchor a new gateway to the city by building modern, attractive headquarters on Lisbon Street. The development gave visitors a much better first impression than the head shops, pawn shops and social clubs that previously made up the gateway.
Perhaps Mainers will remember it best, though, as the company that operated the last crank phone system in America. It wasn’t until 1983 that the final call was made on a hand-crank telephone system still in operation in Bryant Pond.
Oxford Networks had acquired a little Bryant Pond phone company in 1981, and announced it would end the hand-crank system. Despite protests from a “Don’t Yank the Crank Committee,” the last call was made Oct. 12, 1983, and 425 subscribers were brought into the modern telephone age.
On Wednesday, another milestone occurred. Oxford Networks’ newest parent company, investment firm Oak Hill Capital Partners, brought it and other acquisitions under one brand name, FirstLight.
Although Oxford Networks customers are now part of a 9,600-mile telecom network, they lose a name that has been associated with making connections in Maine for 117 years.
Correction: This story was updated at 1:22 p.m. on April 15 to correct an inaccurate description of the invention of the telephone.
Carol Coultas can be contacted at 791-6460 or at: