A Michigan auto parts company has transformed
itself and made money. But its chief finds herself
caught between demands to lower costs and lift wages.
JACKSON, Mich. — Anita-Maria Quillen blended a strawberry-banana shake, tucked high heels into a Louis Vuitton bag and fired off last-minute requests at her little boys and their sitter.
She stepped out her door in flip-flops, where a waiting Chevy Tahoe would take her to a business fair near Detroit. The auto parts company Ms. Quillen has owned and run for six years, Diversified Engineering & Plastics, was profitable, but only because she had aggressively cut costs. She had whittled the payroll to 78 employees from 130. Now, the most important thing was to bring in new orders — what she called “workingon the business, instead of in the business.”
Ms. Quillen, 35, belongs to a much-mythologized class in American life and politics: small-business owners. Politicians heap praise on them, campaigning in their factories and extolling their enterprises as engines of good jobs and good wages. President Trump’s election lifted their hopes for a resurgence.
But with the president’s economic agenda stalled in Congress, a more complicated reality was taking hold, especially in Ms. Quillen’s industry. After several door-busting years, auto sales had dropped every month in 2017. The slowdown had caught up to Ms. Quillen’s company, crimping her ability to contribute to the blue-collar revival that Michiganders had hoped for when they backed a Republican presidentfor the first time in 28 years.
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