“Rexnord of Indiana made a deal during the Obama Administration to move to Mexico,” Trump tweeted on May 7. “Fired their employees. Tax product big that's sold in U.S.”
Eleven days later, on the phone with shareholders, chief executive Todd Adams showed little sign he cared.
“We’ve essentially completed the last plant move, and we’re currently focused on bringing the last pieces of equipment on line,” Adams said on the call Thursday. The company's business strategy, which was two years in the making, was beginning to deliver results, he went on. “We’re definitely on track to hit our goal of $30 million in annualized savings,” Adams said.
Rexnord, which is based in Milwaukee, had avoided the spotlight for nearly 30 years. Under the White House’s intense glare, it has not changed course in its plans to shut down factories in the United States and move jobs to Mexico.
The supplier of ball bearings and other industrial parts is wrapping up the closure of a half-century-old plant in Indianapolis — 200 of the 300 workers there have so far been laid off. It is investing in automation, which could reduce the need for American employees elsewhere. And over the last year, despite getting swept into political turmoil, its profits have slightly grown.
Adams called it an “important year of strategic progress.” When he opened the line to questions, not a single investor asked about Trump.
The shrug-off is extraordinary for a firm that has been the focus of Trump's ire about outsourcing.
The president had tried to make an example of Rexnord for closing down its plant.
“Rexnord of Indiana is moving to Mexico and rather viciously firing all of its 300 workers,” Trump tweeted in December. “No more!”
At the time, Rexnord offered no response to the president. (The company did not respond to The Washington Post's request for comment.)
Dan Keeney, president of DPK Public Relations, which specializes in crisis communications, said companies like Rexnord are unlikely to suffer harm from Trump’s disapproval. The manufacturer sells parts to other businesses — not shoppers likely to partake in political boycotts. Forging ahead quietly, he said, reflects a solid strategy.
“There’s very little upside to engaging the president or drawing more attention to that criticism,” Keeney said. “There could be some reputation harm, but it would not be threatening to their long-term viability.”
Mark Muro, an economist at the Brookings Institution who focuses on manufacturing, said the drama in industrial Indianapolis highlights how Trump can’t jawbone firms with 140-character swipes.
“In the end, all that matters for the plant executives is financial performance,” Muro said. “ No amount of bluster and demands that they hire more people will change that core dynamic.”
Trump has repeatedly vowed to protect and create American jobs — 25 million, he pledged during the campaign. Voters in states that have taken employment hits, thanks in part to trade and automation, propelled him into the White House.
Since the election, the president has told Congress he would like to renegotiate NAFTA, the 1990s deal that opened cheaper trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico. His economic messaging tool of choice, in many instances, has been Twitter.
Trump has shamed Lockheed Martin for the cost of the company’s fighter jets, General Motors for its production lines in Mexico and Nordstrom for dumping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line.
Some of those tweets allowed Trump to declare victory. The president claimed to have persuaded United Technologies in December to keep 800 of about 1,350 jobs at a Carrier furnace factory in Indianapolis, rather than shuttling them to Monterrey, Mexico.
But he could not stop Rexnord, which sits about a mile from Carrier, from moving to the same Mexican city, to take advantage of lower wages and other costs.
Rexnord announced its plans to close its Indianapolis plant and dismiss nearly 300 workers last year. Chuck Jones, president of the union that represents the Rexnord employees, said their employees' replacements south of the border would make $3 an hour. The company flew some Mexican workers up to Indiana to study the factory in its last months and learn the trade, he said.
The company stands to save $15.5 million in its first year abroad, according to figures the company shared with Jones. That windfall is expected to grow by roughly $200,000 a year.
In the months after election, Trump seized on the jobs lost in Indianapolis as another symptom of old-school manufacturing’s downturn. About 5 million similar jobs have disappeared in the United States since 2000, thanks to technology and trade.
Some economists say Trump's proposed solutions to the decline — changing the terms of trade deals, enacting new tariffs on imports — could deliver only a partial recovery.
Modern factories can produce more goods with fewer people, thanks to machines. A study last year from Indiana's Ball State University concluded that automation was responsible for 88 percent of manufacturing jobs lost over the last two decades.
“It’s wonderful and noble when firms take a socially responsible stance and say we have bottom lines that extend beyond the financial,” said Tim Baldwin, a business professor at Indiana University. “On the other hand, fighting economics is folly. To prop up jobs against the economic reality is a short-term deal.”