Early morning in downtown Washington: Commuters rush from the Metro to their offices. Others, who are driving, fight for lanes in the daily race to the office garage. They are part of the briefcase brigade. Some might produce laws by the end of the day. Others will try to influence legislation. Most will contribute to an overwhelming flow of words in meetings and documents, on and off the record. And though their endeavors are important to someone, many will go home without seeing any tangible evidence of their efforts.
Policy is hard to quantify.
Manufactured products are something else.
People buy and use products -- grooming aids, permanent magnet generators, custom-car kits, computers -- all of which, and more, are produced in the Washington-Baltimore area.
The people who make those goods rise early for treks to factories and small shops in places like Manassas and Columbia, Md., and Sparrows Point, Md., where some make steel. A few others journey to neighborhoods just outside Washington's downtown, like the 1300 block of H Street NE, where 22 employes of The Hairlox Co. Inc., a black cosmetics firm, make shampoos and creams for worldwide sales.
The area's factories are little noticed, mostly because they work in the shadow of the business of politics and a perception of Washington as a strictly service-based economy. In addition, many of their proprietors believe there is profit in anonymity.
But the manufacturers are here, some 4,783 of them according to figures compiled by the Washington-Baltimore Regional Association.
Most of the manufacturing concerns are small, family-owned businesses. Others, like the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point, are adjuncts of larger public companies. In all, some 245,000 Washington-Baltimore area residents work for manufacturers, companies that had a combined annual payroll of $6.2 billion in 1986.
"We get so overshadowed with government and consultants, we often forget that there's a lot of real manufacturing going on around here," said Barry Buzby, executive director of the National Industrial Council, the state relations arm of the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers.
Marcus M. Griffith, Hairlox's 62-year-old founder and president, agrees that the amount of manufacturing done in the Washington area is underrated. But he said he likes being out of the limelight.
"You don't want your competition to know what you're doing. You don't want them to know your strengths and weaknesses," said Griffith, whose company is going up against cosmetics industry giants like Revlon, Johnson Products and Ebony Fashion Fair in the battle for the black beauty-products dollar.
Griffith started Hairlox in 1970 after dissolving another of his firms, which had operated a chain of beauty salons in the Washington area since 1956. Before starting that company, Griffith had worked as a Washington-Baltimore sales representative for another black cosmetics company, Fuller Products.
Today, Griffith's company sells hair-care and related products in 43 states, as well as in Africa, the Caribbean and Western Europe.
"We're doing okay," said Griffith who, like most of the independent manufacturers interviewed for this article, declined to give specifics. "My sales are in seven figures, in excess of $1 million a year," he said.
Besides the making of shampoos and creams, life at Hairlox revolves around nonstop direct-mail campaigns. This is basic, hard-knuckles, velvet-glove advertising -- sending out brochures and related materials to 20,000 beauty salons and distributors every month.
And because the beauty-products business is a personal business, advertising also means sending Hairlox officials to all of the industry conventions and trade shows and even to religious gatherings, where they might meet customers and make sales, Griffith said.
"You can always develop a following for your products if you do the right things; and we try to do the right things," said Griffith, who also serves as president of the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Griffith said that much of his time nowadays is spent thinking about a successor. He said he has two "very loyal and competent employes" who can take over the business. "And I also have two minor children. I hope that, when they're old enough, they'll be able to hold things together."
Some 30 miles away, along Route 28 in Manassas, the people at Georator Corp. are holding things together quite well. For nearly 38 years, starting with a shop in Arlington, they have been the nation's premier manufacturer of permanent magnet generators, frequency converters and alternators.
But first, a bit of physics. A generator converts mechanical energy into electrical energy primarily by breaking the lines in a magnetic field and thereby inducing electron movement. Georator's generators forego brushes and other devices used to establish magnetic fields in traditional generators. Instead, the company's patented "No-brush" system uses permanent magnets imbedded in a wheel-like, aluminum disc to create its magnetic field.
The result is a lighter-weight, more reliable, highly adaptable generator that is in great demand for military and commercial uses, said Shelley Krasnow, Georator's founder and president.
A check of Georator's customer list illustrates Krasnow's point. The names run from General Electric Co. to Rockwell International Corp. Big firms and little companies, not to mention the Air Force and Navy.
"We build our reputation on reliability," said Krasnow, who is 80. "Our generators are found all over the world."
Georator is a prime example of a niche marketer. Its products mainly are used as components in completed goods made by other manufacturers.
The Georator equipment is so specialized that larger companies, such as General Electric, don't want to go through the trouble and expense of making it, Krasnow said.
"We're a big frog in a small puddle. But it's a good business," said Krasnow, an electrical engineer who came to Washington in 1930 to work for the Bureau of Standards.
The government job did not work out; Krasnow was laid off in 1933. "There weren't any other jobs available," he said. "So I decided to start my own business."
By 1950, Krasnow had founded Georator in Arlington. But demand grew. More space was needed.
He moved the company to Manassas because land was more plentiful and less expensive there and there was a labor pool willing to work in a factory.
As in other manufacturing businesses, the size of Georator's workforce depends on the number of orders for the company's products.
"We've been as high as 100 people and as low as 30," Krasnow said.
But many of Georator's people have been with the company for as long as 30 years. The average length of employment there is 13.5 years.
"That's where we get our reputation for quality and reliability," Krasnow said. "They really believe in what they are doing. They have great pride. They know that, especially in military applications, lives depend on the quality of their work."
Krasnow declined specific comment on his privately held company's annual sales. "Oh, let's just say that we've been consistently profitable," he said.
"You want to know how much we make? Why do you want to know that? I don't think I can tell you that," said Terry Gilbreath, 25, the daughter of one of the founders of E&G Classics Inc. in Columbia, Md.
E&G makes custom auto parts -- grills, bumpers, fenders and various mouldings -- sold mostly to new car dealers that use them to "personalize" the cars and trucks bought by auto enthusiasts.
An E&G package can add $2,000 or more to the price of a car, which is good money for the custom parts manufacturer and its car dealer clients, many of whom are in hot pursuit of ways to raise their profit margins on vehicle sales.
In the Washington area, E&G also does some direct customizing work for individual customers -- turning mass-produced, lookalike showroom cars and trucks into automotive flights of fancy. But that kind of work is costly and also is labor intensive, officials at E&G said. And so the company concentrates on producing the parts and the kits for others to install.
E&G, started by Dave Eash and Rick Gilbreath in 1972, now employs 250 people, many of them relatives.
Legend has it -- Terry Gilbreath said it's the absolute truth -- that the company began in a phone booth at 22nd and M streets in the District, where Eash and Rick Gilbreath were employed for an auto dealer that had been at that location.
"They would get orders for the parts over the phone and then build them over the weekend," Terry Gilbreath said. One thing led to another. The two friends opened a small shop on Rhode Island Avenue. That grew. They moved their business to Bladensburg. That grew, too. So, they moved to Columbia, where they now operate out of three plants.
E&G, which also owns Colonial Fiberglass Co. in Hanover, Pa., works through a network of 80 distributors in the United States and Canada.
Terry Gilbreath, now E&G's national sales coordinator, said she grew up with her father's business and never considered joining the Washington briefcase brigade.
"I used to work in the shop during the summers," she said, adding that she did go on to get a two-year associate's degree in management.
But the lure of Washington's powerful halls held little meaning for her, she said. The idea of pushing someone else's papers and someone else's ideas had no appeal.
"Look," she said. "I'm very proud of what my father and Dave had done. They built a business from nothing. They've done something that a lot of people just dream about doing."