Area Business Leader Optimistic on Local Economy


UNCP student Nick Arena took the campus to school during a speaking engagement Wednesday.

No ordinary student, Mr. Arena is vice president and general manager of Acme Electric's manufacturing plant in Lumberton and a candidate for the Master's of Business Administration at the UNCP School of Business.

Although he said the views expressed in UNCP's Business Executive Series lectures were his own, Mr. Arena drew extensively from his business experiences with the power distribution systems manufacturer. Acme came to Lumberton in 1968 and employs about 300 workers.

"Acme is an unusual business in that it started small, stayed small and remained independent for so long," he said of the company, which was recently purchased by Key Components Company of Tarrytown, N.Y. "We have a high-skilled labor force in Lumberton with a great work ethic and high productivity."

Like many manufacturers since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Acme has a manufacturing plant in Mexico.

"We had to do something to compete with low cost producers, so we moved our high-volume, low-skilled product manufacturing to Mexico," Mr. Arena said. "We have good competitive reasons for staying in Lumberton."

Products made in Mexico are shipped to the Lumberton distribution facility, and Lumberton's highly skilled workers produce high-end products. Besides cheaper labor, Monterrey, Mexico presents many business advantages, including convenient suppliers of raw materials and strong engineering programs at nearby universities.

On the negative side, overhead costs are high in Mexico. However, Mr. Arena said NAFTA has been a good thing for Acme because it has opened new markets as well as helped the company compete with much larger companies.

"This migration to Mexico is the same migration that took place 30 years ago when Acme move production from New York to Lumberton," he said.

Local workers here are very productive and dedicated, Mr. Arena said.

"I'd put our Lumberton plant up against any of our competitors for productivity and quality," he said. "Our productivity here is twice that in Mexico."

Mr. Arena is optimistic about the economic transformation of the local economy.

"I see some good, proactive steps taking place here," he said. "Change isn't easy, and we have some work to do, especially in education. On the other hand, we have some really good assets."

The region must turn to the high technology sector in the future. He praised the COMtech project, which combines the educational assets of UNCP, Robeson Community College and the Public Schools of Robeson County with a high-technology industry park.

"Tony Normand (COMtech CEO) is a can-do guy, and it sounds like a good idea," he said. "Overall, we are an attractive investment opportunity for business."

Mr. Arena's lectures cover issues of business communications, employee motivation, marketing research and "Managing a Low-Tech company in the High Tech Boom and Bust."

The Business Lecture Series at UNCP is sponsored by Students in Free Enterprise and the School of Business.