In the November 2010 midterm elections, Ron Johnson, owner and president of Pacur Inc. and a Republican politician, beat out Wisconsin’s three-term Democratic senator, Russ Feingold. Until he was elected, there were no manufacturers sitting in the Senate, but Sen. Johnson hopes to use his experience running a plastic sheet and roll stock extrusion business to drive change in the federal government.
MPW: What was the driving force behind your decision to run for the Senate against a seasoned and popular politician such as Russ Feingold?
Ron Johnson: The final straw for me was the passing of the healthcare bill. My own personal story is that my first child was born with a pretty serious congenital heart defect. At the age of eight months she had surgery—the upper chamber of her heart was totally reconstructed. Her heart is backwards right now, but she’s 27 years old and is a nurse at a neonatal intensive care unit. That gave me first-hand experience of how phenomenal our healthcare system is.
I believe the [recently passed] healthcare bill is designed to lead to a government takeover of the healthcare sector—one-sixth of our economy. I certainly didn’t run into anybody on the campaign trail that felt that the federal government had the capability of efficiently running one-sixth of our economy.
MPW: There is discontent among CEOs of some manufacturing companies with respect to the regulatory and economic climate in the United States. Emerson Electric’s CEO David Farr even told a meeting of CEOs that “the government is our worst enemy” and vowed not to build another manufacturing plant in the U.S. As a small-business person, do you believe that there’s anything that the government can do—or will do—to help boost manufacturing in the U.S.?
RJ: Unfortunately, I think the uncertainty that permeates our entire economy is a very predictable result of too much government that really produces misguided and very ineffective over-regulation. The primary uncertainty comes from the government hugely overspending—$1.3 trillion year after year as far as the eye can see. Spending has gone from 20% of GDP to 25% and it continues moving north. What our federal government needs to do is to restore confidence in the economy. Consumers need to be more confident that their jobs are secure. Businesses need to be more confident that politicians are not going to continue to demonize them or lay claim to a greater share of the fruits of their effort.
The first step to this is limiting the size and scope of the federal government. I believe that can be done with a proposal like Congressman Mike Pence’s constitutional amendment to limit spending to 20% of GDP. If we show a credible plan for capping spending, we will show the American people that the government is able to live within its means. I believe that’s the type of confidence boost the economy needs.
MPW: How do the many rules and regulations under which manufacturing has to operate affect the United States’ ability to be competitive with countries that do not have these?
RJ: In order to focus the minds in Washington, DC on actually trying to reduce the size and scope of government, I would like to see committees in both the House and the Senate whose primary focus is to find laws and regulations that we can eliminate. We need to start reducing the number of regulations. In my business, I actually found it easy to compete against large companies because of the bureaucracy under which they must operate.
MPW: We hear a lot about fair trade, not just free trade with foreign countries. What is your position on this?
RJ: Pacur is a small to midsized company and it competes globally. About 20% of what Pacur produces gets exported, and one of its largest export markets is China. I have a great deal of faith in the workers in Wisconsin and America. We’re a hard-working nation with the most productive workforce in the world, and we can be competitive as long as the government creates a healthy environment for our businesses. We can’t have the highest tax rate in the world and the most regulated business environment in the world, and expect to compete on a level playing field. This goes to basic business principles.
MPW: How can we encourage more business growth in the United States—encourage companies to put manufacturing plants here?
RJ: Multinational companies still believe the United States is a good place to invest. The U.S. is still the world’s largest consumer market. I wouldn’t dream of producing for the U.S. market anywhere else other than the U.S.
I understand that customer service is the way to have a successful business and I need to be close to my customers. The only reason many U.S. businesses don’t want to manufacture here is the business environment is too hostile. To create jobs we need to celebrate success and to encourage people to get into business. Over the past 30 years, my experience as a businessperson has shown what we can do in this country. We’ve put our heart and soul into the creation of Pacur.
MPW: While you’re working in Washington, who’s minding the store in Oshkosh?
RJ: Some of the managers at Pacur have been there for over 30 years. One of the reasons I felt I could run for office was that before I announced I was running, I was putting 50% of my time into volunteer activities, and the business was running smoothly. My younger brother Barry, who is an experienced manufacturing manager, took over my position. I’m for term limits—it can be healthy for government and for business. The fact that I’m no longer at Pacur has given new opportunities for some of the younger managers to step up to the plate.
MPW: What are some of Pacur’s goals under this management?
RJ: Pacur will continue to focus on what it has always focused on. The company largely sells into the medical device packaging field with polyester, copolyesters, and some polypropylene—both homo and co-PP. Pacur pushes its sheet and roll stock products into markets they are suited for. They provide lenticular products to the packaging market as well. Pacur will continue to do the highly specialized products for medical device applications, and focus on very high quality and a high level of service. That’s always been my vision—being a highly specialized, high-quality, high-customer-service-oriented company. That’s part of Pacur’s culture and it will continue.
MPW: From plastics processor to U.S. senator; it’s a big change, isn’t it?
RJ: I’ll never be a career politician—I am a citizen legislator. I think people are saying that we need a different perspective in DC. There are 57 lawyers in the Senate, one accountant, and no manufacturers. We need a business perspective in DC. When I was campaigning, I had people come up to me frequently shaking their finger in my face and say, ‘Don’t you change.’ I’m not going to. —Clare Goldsberry
Sen. Ron Johnson was born in Mankato, MN, and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He has been involved in plastics processing since 1979 with the founding of Pacur LLC. Sen. Johnson has recently been appointed to serve on the Senate Appropriations and Budget committees.