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What I Learned: L.A.'s role as a major manufacturing hub

What I Learned: L.A.'s role as a major manufacturing hub
Cosmetics and skin care are among the most thriving industries in the Southland, helping drive the region's status as a manufacturing leader. (Dan Dalton / Getty Images/Caiaimage)

The Southland might be the entertainment capital of the world, but there's a lot more being made here than movies and TV shows. Think designer gear and cutting-edge skin-care products, to name just a couple image-conscious industries.

The manufacturing sector employs over 520,000 workers in the Los Angeles area, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's the highest number for any U.S. metropolitan center for which estimates are available.


Less than 2% of jeans sold in America are now made in this country. But L.A. remains a hub for making designer brands like 7 For All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity, J Brand, Joe's Jeans, Karen Kane, Rouge Territory and True Religion.

Other high-end companies that manufacture in the region include Weiss watches, See's Candies, Grenite (an eco-friendly granite replacement) and private label skin and body care company YG Laboratories.


What drives this trend? Rebecca James Gadberry, an owner and former CEO of YG Laboratories, said that the advantages of manufacturing in the Southland include a large labor pool and a central location for shipping products.

As a longtime business owner and cosmetics scientist, Gadberry has a unique perspective on both California manufacturing and the cutting-edge science being applied here — an expertise she shares in her role as senior instructor and coordinator of the Cosmetic Science program at UCLA Extension.

She points out that L.A. is home to many industry organizations that lend advocacy and support to manufacturers.  For the cosmetic industry alone, Beauty Industry West and the California Chapter of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists provide a platform of supportive research and networking for regional manufacturers looking to gain a share of this worldwide, multibillion-dollar industry.

But there are disadvantages to doing business in L.A., as well: Gadberry cited high property costs, high taxes, an unreliable seaport and a state government perceived as being anti-business — a combination that is prompting some manufacturers to relocate or limit their manufacturing in L.A.


"With regards to the cosmetic industry, manufacturing is not nearly as vibrant as it was 10 to 15 years ago due to mergers and acquisitions of many of the larger brands," said Gadberry, who currently teaches Introduction to Ingredients and Regulations for Cosmetic Professionals.

"Many innovations in anti-aging come from California manufacturers. And due to the Green Chemistry Initiatives Gov. Schwarzenegger signed just before he left office, California cosmetic manufacturers are beginning to lead the nation in developing, using and disposing of the chemicals in our products."

Gadberry inherited YG Laboratories when her mother passed away in 2000. At that time she and her business partner considered moving the company to Las Vegas to take advantage of Nevada's tax laws. But rather than jump on the bandwagon right away, they decided to wait and see how other manufacturers who moved fared.

"Two years later, several of the companies moved back to L.A.," she said. "They found it much more difficult to attract qualified staff, shipping was much more expensive, they were left out of the 'creativity loop' offered by the local industry organizations, and ingredient vendors visited much less frequently. So they were not made aware of new ingredient innovations that could help build their product offerings. It turns out low taxes aren't the only thing that counts when making a business profitable."

Gadberry has created over 1,300 products during her 44-year cosmetics career and she continues to be intrigued by the sciences involved. "Biology, biochemistry, genetics, epigenetics, proteomics, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, stem cell research, green chemistry, the microbiome — my goodness, there's so many areas of research coming together in the field of cosmetic science.

"Right now, I'm becoming an authority in epigenetics (creating positive cellular function by altering genetic markers) and in the microbiome (altering facial microorganisms), both of which I believe will have a huge impact on skin-care development in the coming five years."

Although she has had considerable success in the business world, Gadberry calls herself a teacher at heart. Many of her students have gone on to great success, including "celebrity estheticians, company presidents, marketing people, product developers," to name a handful of categories, she said. Some of the companies include Paul Mitchell, Estee Lauder, Mary Kay and Neutrogena.

Perhaps her most successful former student is Marcia Kilgore, who founded Bliss, a high-end bath, body and skincare product retailer, and sold it in 1999 to multinational luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH). Kilgore went on to launch two other successful brands: Soap & Glory and FitFlop.

"I've come to realize I live for the 'a-ha!' moment in a student's eyes when everything comes together in an instant and she gets sudden understanding of something that's perplexed her for years," Gadberry said. 

"While I may teach cosmetic science, I view it as a platform to teach people about their own ability to learn, to build a knowledge base that suits them personally, to change their lives for the better. It's very, very fulfilling."

Beyond the classroom, Gadberry is launching a website called Skin Care Ingredient Experts, which will provide a behind-the-scenes look for professionals and consumers who want to get a scientist's view on product ingredients, industry trends and the effects of government regulations, as well as provide interviews with cosmetic research movers and shakers. 

"It will have a bunch of things no one else is covering because they don't have my unique access or perspective. It's an intriguing industry. I think people will love having the curtain pulled back," she said.


Julia Clerk for UCLA Extension