One company and one family loom large over this city, intertwined for decades. Cummins Inc. is the biggest employer in Columbus, built into a $20 billion heavy-equipment manufacturer with the help of Mike Pence, who as governor passed pro-business tax cuts and made trade visits to China on its behalf.
But the alliance of the past is being threatened by the administration Mike Pence now serves, as President Trump’s trade war with multiple nations clobbers Cummins and other local companies.
According to the Brookings Institution, the Columbus area is the most export-reliant region in the country, with just over half of its economic output linked to foreign purchases.
“I’m very worried,” said Tom Linebarger, the chief executive of Cummins, who met with President Trump over dinner at the White House in January in a bid to dissuade him from introducing steel and aluminum tariffs or tearing up free-trade agreements.
Linebarger, 55, warns of job losses ahead because thousands of jobs at Cummins and elsewhere in the area depend on trade.
“We will do everything we can to mitigate . . . the impact to jobs,” he said. “It’s very clear, though, that we’re not going to be able to mitigate everything.”
Pence’s hometown oozes internationalism: 40 foreign companies have a presence, more than half of them Japanese engines and auto-parts plants, employing almost 10,000 people. The area’s schools collectively speak 51 languages. The city ranks second in the nation in the per capita percentage of H-1B visas for foreign workers.
Cummins plants produced the drill that powered the famous rescue of Chilean miners in 2010 and the emergency generator at the Statue of Liberty.
Now the aggressive pursuit of foreign trade that made this city a recession-busting economic miracle has made it decidedly vulnerable, with businesses already canceling projects and mulling the depth of job losses.
The Cummins plants, which produce engines, generators and other equipment, epitomize how deeply international trade has become rooted in cities and towns throughout the nation. Cummins alone has 25,000 different suppliers and also its own chain of distribution, both of them largely international. Its U.S. base is bolstered by operations in the United Kingdom, China and India.
Linebarger said the president’s trade war hits the company in two ways, affecting both its incoming parts, which will be subject to tariffs, and its own products, on which retaliatory penalties will be assessed by countries targeted by Trump.
For Cummins, the two most corrosive tariffs will be those assessed on steel and aluminum, which began July 1 and cover $48 billion of imports, and the proposed $351 billion of automobile and auto part imports. Both have been justified as necessary for national security.
The vice president’s brother Ed ran what is now the most vulnerable of the company’s factories: the high-horsepower engine plant in Seymour, outside Columbus, which employs 1,000 people. Its biggest export is a 95-liter engine, which is the size of a car and can power hospitals and football stadiums. It is so specialized that only 10 can be made per week. Of these, eight will be sold abroad.
“We almost put the factory in India. We evaluated the U.K. and China too. If we’d seen trade barriers at that point, we’d definitely have made a different decision,” says Linebarger.
Other local businesses are seeing the effects as well. Harold Force, 67, has run a construction company founded by his father since 1980, which currently employs 250 people. Now he is coping with rising prices on items he needs for contracts signed in less expensive days before the trade war.
Already, he said, he has had to cancel plans to expand his workforce.
“I think this is a much bigger deal than people think. When it started, it was shock. I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’ Then one of our biggest projects in recent times was canceled because of steel prices,” he said.
“It’s damaging in so many ways,” he said. “Tariffs have put blood in the water.”
The city’s foreign companies are likewise worried. Jon Volz of Sunright America Inc., a Japanese-owned company in Columbus that supplies U.S. Toyota plants with millions of bolts and fasteners, said the materials required to make their parts are available only in Japan.
“It would take some time to produce our materials here. We fear Taiwan will swoop in and take the competition away from us,” he said.
Cummins has applied to the White House for an exemption from the tariffs. Three GOP House members in Indiana — Reps. Jim Banks, Susan Brooks and Jackie Walorski — joined more than a hundred House Republicans in expressing “deep concern” about tariffs in a letter to Trump in March that requested a series of exemptions.
The Democrat running against Greg Pence has sought to make trade an issue in the campaign. Jeannine Lake, 51, a Christian newspaper publisher, said the economy was the only issue that mattered.
“Tariffs are not just hitting people in places like Columbus, it’s also farms which make soy beans and corn,” she said.
Republicans have controlled the seat for nearly four decades, however, and Pence has raised $1.6 million to his rival’s $11,000. Pence has run a muted campaign, refusing to attend candidate debates and declining to release a public schedule. His most public comments so far came when he defended himself after it was revealed that his gas station company’s bankruptcy had cost taxpayers $20 million in contamination costs.
His views on tariffs are nevertheless clear: His website says he fully backs the “Trump-Pence agenda” and favors a “level playing field” when it comes to international trade. Neither Greg Pence nor the vice president responded to requests for comment, but the administration in the past has said the tariffs may produce pain but are necessary for future economic growth.
Across Columbus, workers are expecting the worst.
“I’m very Republican, but I feel the current strategy is opinion-based, not data-based,” said Chris Tiemeier, 38, whose grandfather was also a proud Cummins employee and whose wife works at the plant. “The company has changed our town; it’s doubled in size. I’m worried about tariffs.”
“I’d like to say I’m optimistic. I’m an optimistic person, but there’s not a lot of optimism to be had,” added James McNeely, 40. “Most of our parts come from China. I think we’re going to feel this trade war a whole lot faster than what people are saying. There’s a saying, ‘Trust God, everyone else bring data.’ I don’t think we’re doing that.”
Jason Hester of the Greater Columbus Economic Development Corporation has traveled to China for the last nine years to whip up investment. This year, he’s canceled his travel plans.
“There’s nothing we’re going to decide, so what would the point be?” he asked.
Linebarger, the Cummins CEO, said he was heartened that he’d been able to deliver his message to Trump. But he’s not optimistic much will change.
“Our advice was not to do tariffs . . . but obviously it did not persuade,” he said.
“Their view of what’s eventually good for our company differs to mine.”