Manufacturing Flourishes in Lehigh Valley

Lehigh Valley's long legacy of manufacturing is driven by a strong work ethic and robust transportation infrastructure.

On Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 14:57

From a factory in Bethlehem, multicolored marshmallow Peeps candies make their way across the country and onto store shelves, bringing delight to shoppers young and old.

Peeps have been made in Lehigh Valley since 1932, when Russian immigrant Sam Born decided to move his burgeoning candy business, Just Born, to the area from New York City. It was a big step to relocate a company in the midst of the Depression, but the move has paid off over nine decades.

Peeps are just one of the iconic American brands that have their roots in Lehigh Valley. The region has a long manufacturing heritage, from steel making and other heavy industries to food and beverage production. Today, manufacturers specializing in everything from consumer products to auto parts thrive in the area.

"For a family-owned company that moved here during the Depression and has been able to survive and thrive to become one of the largest candy companies in the U.S. speaks to the strength of Lehigh Valley," says Matt Pye, vice president of trade relations and corporate affairs for Just Born Quality Confections, which also produces popular brands like Hot Tamales, Mike and Ike candies and others.

"There's no doubt this is a strong, growing community," Pye continues. "In addition to all the great amenities that are here, all of the people in companies, city governments and nonprofits are working together to make this a great place to work and live."

Where Brands Are Born

Crayola has been making crayons in Lehigh Valley since the turn of the 20th century. The company, formerly known as Binney & Smith, expanded its industrial pigment supply operation to Forks Township in 1902 to produce slate school pencils. Soon, the company began introducing carbon black colorants into the mix – and the crayon was born.

Now as the premier maker of kid-friendly arts and crafts products around the globe, Crayola has grown its local operations to include additional manufacturing and distribution facilities, along with the Crayola Experience, a museum and visitor center in downtown Easton that showcases how crayons are made.

Many other longtime Lehigh Valley businesses have also built internationally known brands, including C.F. Martin Guitars, which produces guitars and stringed instruments used by many top musicians. A fixture in the Valley since the early 1833, the Nazareth-based company makes top quality instruments that are valued as much for their craftsmanship as their sound.

In Palmer Township, about 500 employees of VF Majestic sew on-field uniforms for Major League Baseball teams, including the legendary Yankees pinstripes. The company also produces authentic licensed wear for fans sold in stores across the country as well as online.

Mecca for Manufacturing

The area's educated, stable workforce, low costs and its convenient location within a day's drive of one-third of the U.S. population continues to bring new manufacturers to Lehigh Valley. Louisville-based Westport Axle recently opened a plant in Upper Macungie that produces auto parts for Mack Trucks and Volvo, with plans to hire more than 500 people.

Voltaix, a leading manufacturer of specialty materials for the semiconductor and photovoltaic industries, chose Upper Mount Bethel Township for its new, state-of-the-art manufacturing site built to meet global market demand for its performance-enhancing products used in computer chips.

Located in the Portland Industrial Park, the facility "positions us well to execute on technical and strategic initiatives in several high-growth markets and to provide our customers with higher capacity and improved redundancy," says Mark Wilkinson, executive vice president of Voltaix. "We look forward to working closely with the local communities as we establish and grow our manufacturing capabilities in Pennsylvania."

Well Connected

Lehigh Valley's multimodal network of highways, railroads, and air and port access is another draw for companies.

That highway network has allowed George Reitz, owner and president of American Millwork and Cabinetry in Emmaus, to expand his markets for custom millwork for commercial clients.

"We are at the crossroads of major highways, and that gives us the opportunity to expand," Reitz says. "We're now able to move into markets in New York and Long Island, and as far south as Virginia."

Reitz started his business in 2002 outside the area and was drawn to Lehigh Valley by the work ethic of some of his employees. By 2006, the business had outgrown its original location, and he found a suitable building in the area to remodel.

Despite a factory full of state-of-the-art machines, Reitz knows his most important assets leave the building at the end of each day.

"I understood the workforce that was coming from Lehigh Valley," Reitz says. "It was very heartwarming in the sense that they had an old-fashioned work ethic – and I appreciated that."