A fan suggested that Rowe sell bobbleheads for his Mike Rowe WORKS Foundation charity which helps American men and women learn trades to close the "skills gap" in this country.
Rowe had three criteria: high quality (not plastic), reasonably priced (not $200) and made in the USA (not China).
Over six months of searching, he could never come up with a deal that could fit all three. The primary problem: bobbleheads in any volume are now made outside the U.S.
Enter Alpharetta's Royal Bobbles, which creates hand-made, high-quality bobbleheads of everyone from Elvis to Bill Clinton as well as customized individual bobbleheads. But the company uses China for its production.
Owner Warren Royal - who bought www.bobbleheads.com for $30,000 in 2008 - offered to show Rowe what it takes to make a high-quality bobblehead and provided him with 100 limited-edition Lowe bobbleheads to auction off.
Rowe flew in to Alpharetta and learned how they design a bobblehead from scratch, using a digital designer, a mold and a cast. Royal's daughter-in-law Rachael is the master artist who paints Rowe's face by hand. The fact all specialized bobbleheads need to be painted by hand elevates the labor cost. That labor cost domestically is much higher. A bobblehead made in China could retail for $30 to $40 but would have to retail $140 if it were made here.
"The cost of labor has destroyed the market for what these things would truly retail for," Rowe said.
Plastic, mass-produced bobbleheads, he noted in an interview today, "lose their charm. Nobody wants to see a snowstorm where all the snowflakes are alike. And you want to know who the heck that is."
Royal, in the meantime, was tickled to work with Rowe.
"He's amazing," Royal said. "So down to earth. I couldn't believe it. He's such a nice guy."
So far, Rowe has auctioned off four of his 100 limited edition bobbleheads for $21,000 for his charity. A fifth one is now up for auction.
He is happy with Royal Bobbles' rendition of him, though he wishes he had the relatively svelte body they build into his bobblehead. "They added my dog and me holding a bag of dog poop," Rowe said. "They were great."
Rowe said if he decides to make more bobbleheads for public sale, he may swallow his patriotic pride and create them - in China. "Reluctant is a fair word," he said.
"The United States bought the ticket and got on the ride of the global economy," Rowe continued. "We had this operating premise in America for decades that our stuff is more expensive because it's better. In a lot of ways now, I don't know if we can make that claim. There are a lot of talented artists in China who are willing to work for $20 a day. That's the bed we made."
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