Lawmaker’s ‘Trading Places’ tour takes him to cooler maker

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 9, 2013

SALISBURY — While waiting to be confirmed for a new job in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Mel Watt stopped in Salisbury to try a different kind of work.
On Wednesday, Watt visited freezer and cooler manufacturer Imperial Brown, where he helped create the beginnings of a cooler panel.
Sidewall panel assembler Cedric Phillips guided him through the process. They attached two sheets of metal — already cut, shaped and painted by others in the plant — to a sturdy metal frame.
Once the panel is injected with foam and given a chance to cool, the frame will be removed and used to make another one.
The Wednesday stop was part of Watt’s annual “Trading Places” tour, when the congressman travels throughout the 12th District to step into the shoes of his constituents and work alongside them. This year may be his tour’s final run.
In May, President Barack Obama nominated Watt to become the new director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage finance firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But the U.S. Senate has yet to confirm the Democrat’s nomination, and many Republicans oppose it.
“One of the concerns is to make sure that I’m independent enough from the president to not make political judgments instead of independent ones,” Watt said. “At least, that’s their excuse.”
Watt has been confident about the position from the beginning, he said. Watt said he likes to assume the best but also prepare for the worst — the possibility that he won’t get the job.
“I didn’t expect it to happen by the August recess when I first started the process, so I wasn’t disappointed,” Watt said.
He said he had been looking forward to spending this month in his district, anyway.
“If this is the last Trading Places I do, I think history will reflect that Trading Places has been among the most successful things I’ve started doing,” Watt said.
He said he always enjoys learning more about businesses in the 12th District and talking to the workers.
“I learn more about things going on in the congressional district and relate to people in the work setting and talk to them,” Watt said. “That’s what this is all about.”
Employees at Imperial Brown say they appreciated his visit and the time he took to speak with them.
“I think it went well,” said plant manager Tim Bell. “It was very good, very positive and the employees here were excited.”
Last year, Imperial Manufacturing of Portland, Ore., bought Salisbury manufacturer W.A. Brown & Son. The two names were combined into Imperial Brown.
Since then, the Salisbury plant has roughly doubled its workforce.
The company’s employees also have entered an employee stock ownership plan, meaning they hold an ownership interest in the company.
Watt said he was impressed, and he could tell that the employees at Imperial Brown took a lot of pride in their work.
“It gives employees a different perspective when they have a vested interest in the outcome of what they’re doing,” he said. “It gives one a sense of great self-esteem and a team spirit.”
At the end of his visit, Watt offered the gloves he’d been given to Phillips, whose own gloves were well-worn and ripped.
Phillips then asked Watt to sign the gloves — one for him, and one for his brother, Chris. Each of the brothers works quickly and expertly to make about 30 sidewall panels a day.
“These guys have been just great to work with,” Watt said. When he signed the glove for Phillips, he wrote, “To my boss, Cedric.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.