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Fewer Philadelphia manufacturers are pessimistic

Pessimism seems to be diminishing among area manufacturers, according to a new survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, but activity remains fairly bleak for many.

Pessimism seems to be diminishing among area manufacturers, according to a new survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, but activity remains fairly bleak for many.

Rob Henry falls into that category. Henry is plant manager and part-owner of Plastic Manufacturers Inc., a small East Falls firm that makes vinyl envelopes, pouches, and other plastic packaging.

"Horrible" is how Henry described business.

Sales are down 50 percent; his employees are working four-day weeks. Things are so slow that he can turn an order in two days, instead of the two weeks it might take when sales were strong.

"Lately, we are getting beat on quotes," he said today. "That never happened before. It means the competition is dropping prices."

Any sign of improvement? "None at all," he said.

The Fed's monthly survey, released today, showed that 30.2 percent of the busineses surveyed in June said they believed business was picking up, while 32.4 percent saw it declining.

In the Fed's scoring, that comes to an index number of -2.2. Last month, the index was -22.6, meaning far more firms were reporting declines.

The relative improvement in the index this month was little comfort for those still hit hard by the recession, now in its 19th month.

Nick Ariano, technical director for the Harry Miller Corp., of Philadelphia, has a similar read.

"We don't see any indications things are improving," he said.

Harry Miller manufactures specialty chemicals such as metal cleansers and anticorrosives. Many of its products are used in the auto industry, meaning it has been hit particularly hard by slow vehicle sales.

Since fall, business has been down 30 percent to 50 percent, Ariano said. Normally, the company has 20 to 25 employees. Now it has 16, he said.

Joe Sistie, owner of World Manufacturing Inc., is another local manufacturer tied to an ailing industry, in his case publishing. His Kensington firm makes product-display racks, including those for newspapers and magazines.

"I've never seen it this bad," he said. "Usually, when the economy goes down, people will spend on display racks - they want to try to get a little bit of an edge on the other guy - but not this time."

Nine months ago, he employed 80 people. That dropped to 21, but has rebounded to 30.

Still, he has little optimism about the near future.

"It is not a good picture," he said.

Brian O'Connor was one local manufacturer who saw the glass half full despite a miserable last nine months.

O'Connor manages Humphrys Flag Co. Inc. in Old City. The company describes itself as "one of the nation's oldest, largest, and most versatile manufacturers of custom flags and banners."

"The flag and banner business has historically been recession-proof," O'Connor said. "That ended August last year."

The company, and the industry, O'Connor said, has suffered its sharpest downturn in more than 25 years. Business was down by half.

But, unlike some companies, O'Connor saw glimmers of a turnaround. Housing companies are beginning to order the flags used to herald new construction, for instance. Not as many as they might in the past, but some.

"Things are a little weaker than last spring and last summer, but there are signs it won't be as dark as last August," he said. "There is a distinct possibility things are getting better. I may be looking at it through rose-colored glasses, but that is what you have to do if you want to grow your business."

Contact staff writer Christopher K. Hepp at 215-247-2257 or