The Future of Overseas Manufacturing

Fishing offers an escape like no other. Getting out into nature, forgetting your troubles, either in solitude or with good friends and family – it’s hard to beat. But how often have you wondered where the tackle you use in order to enjoy our great pastime is made? Probably not that often; 90% of the time we probably don’t think twice about where and how the things we stock, sell and fish with are produced.

The often-forgotten fishing tackle manufacturing world is one of constant change and evolution – and the COVID-19 pandemic has only helped to accelerate and amplify that. China has long been regarded as ‘the factory of the world’ with a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to manufacture products for companies and brands all around the world. Probably three quarters of the fishing tackle you’ve ever used was made in China – but subtle changes have been occurring over the last couple of decades.

A fast-growing and ambitious economy, a more affluent workforce with higher wage demands, trade tensions with major Western nations, and long-standing issues with copyright and intellectual property have been chipping away at China’s position as the number one global manufacturing base – and the disruption to international trade caused by COVID-19 has only reinforced the re-think on how and where we manufacture products. But can China ever be replaced? Will it need to be? Should we make more products ‘at home’ to reduce the impact of world events like the pandemic? And do anglers even care where their tackle is made? 

Photo: David Guest

Domestic bliss

For some, recent disruption to overseas production has reaffirmed their strengths as made-in-the-USA brands. Felmlee Lures manufactures its products from its base in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, and it has sensed change in the air regarding attitudes to overseas manufacturing, both from the industry and anglers. Its President and CEO, Michael Flanagan, said: “Buying habits are changing. Through the frustrations of this pandemic we see and hear customers searching and buying only made-in-the-USA products. I believe it’s been very difficult for companies who are getting products from overseas, particularly from China – everyone has had huge delays getting their products from overseas. We believe strongly in our made-in-the-USA brand and we are seeing our sales increase significantly through this crisis.”

Another brand that has enjoyed the domestic manufacturing advantage is Bozeman, Montana-based Simms. Its VP of Operations, Ben Christensen, said: “We have definitely benefitted from having in-house manufacturing capabilities. We were in the midst of investing in an expansion of our manufacturing capabilities prior to COVID-19, which has really helped us keep up with strong wader demand this summer.”

While Simms has significant domestic manufacturing, it also has a sizeable overseas production operation too – because of this, Ben believes not having all your eggs in one basket is actually one of the best ways to navigate a global crisis. He said: “The impact of the pandemic is global and differs from one country to another. For example, the global supply chain was impacted by the initial outbreak in China. Even if you don’t directly manufacture in China, it’s highly likely that raw materials for manufacturing are sourced from China. The pandemic then rippled out to other key manufacturing regions from there [Southeast Asia, Central America]. As a brand, we’re dealing with different degrees of disruption and uncertainty depending on the region.

“I can’t think of any reasons why the pandemic would cause brands to bring production closer to home. If anything, it encourages greater diversification in supply chains such that brands have alternative options when one specific area of the world experiences a disruption. Simms certainly benefits from having production capabilities in-house, but it’s taken us decades to build these capabilities. It’s very difficult to create or expand manufacturing capacity quickly.”

The European view

All that has happened – both in terms of stiffer competition for Chinese factories and the global pandemic – has certainly had a huge impact on manufacturing locations, but will those changes be long-term?

“There’s no doubt COVID-19 has been tough on the manufacturers in China, especially the smaller, less-established factories with fewer long-lasting business relationships,” explained Thomas Sanotra, Director of Product and Marketing for Denmark-based Svendsen Sport, which owns Savage Gear among other brands. 

“I think the manufacturing landscape will be even more consolidated with fewer bigger factories working with fewer bigger customers. Furthermore, I think more companies will be looking at alternative places to have their products produced, both to secure themselves for a similar virus outbreak and to shorten lead-time – however for most product categories this will not change short-term.

“But in the bigger scale no [China won’t become a less important player in fishing tackle manufacture], mainly because there is no alternative which can manufacture in the scale and speed China can. I think COVID-19 might lead to minor shift in niche productions who had tried to move to China in recent years, now realizing that it isn’t as easy as expected – but in the larger scale I see little chance of change.

“I think China will remain in its position but, depending on the product category, we might see a minor shift. For example, many companies struggle with the high minimum order quantities on clothing, so this might be an area where we see changes to other countries who can facilitate smaller productions. With regards to traditional fishing tackle, some of the Eastern European countries can offer some styles of products well, but far from everything the market needs.”

Thomas believes that there is one thing more important than manufacturing and product sourcing, and that’s something which is easy to overlook in times of trouble: “I don’t think we will see buying habits change to ‘homemade’ products, but there are of course countries whom by history is more patriotic than others. However, branding and marketing in general are more important than ever. The markets are flooding with products so the brands with the best products and the best stories will no doubt be the winners.”