Driving global sales for manufacturers

Andrew Dorn, Industry Leader, Information Intensive Business, Acxiom Corporation

When Andrew Dorn, Industry Leader, Information Intensive Business, Acxiom Corporation, was recently researching the top manufacturers in the United States, one topic kept coming up — the strong growth expectations focused on the world’s emerging markets. With the economies of the U.S. and Europe in flux, Dorn felt that, now more than ever, manufacturers need to be attentive to those emerging markets.

“The world is now flat,” says Dorn. “Competition comes from everywhere, so manufacturers need to be everywhere.”

Because of that, Acxiom has partnered with Smart Business to present a special one-hour webinar: “Driving Global Sales for Manufacturers: Why global growth for manufacturers is more important than ever.”

During the webinar — on Wednesday, September 19 at 1:00pm EST — we will discuss why global sales for manufacturers is critical, what factors should be considered in developing or refining the  international strategy, and, finally, present a roadmap that can be employed to optimize chances for success.

Featured panelists will be Zia Daniell Wigder, Vice President and Research Director, Forrester Research; Jennifer Barrett Glasgow, Global Privacy and Public Policy Executive, Acxiom; and Michael Biwer, Managing Director, Acxiom.

“As you enter the global market, it is imperative you understand the privacy laws in each country as they are quite complex and some are very stringent, for example, having criminal penalties for some violations,” says Barrett Glasgow.

Other topics to be discussed include:

  • How to determine which countries to enter and what data to gather to understand regional customer requirements
  • Recommended approaches to building country-specific strategies that can help facilitate smooth transitions, lowest possible cost-of-entry, and consistent performance
  • Considerations for navigating the complex web of country-specific data protection and privacy laws companies must adhere to in their efforts to connect with customers and prospects
  • Best practices used by leading companies that have successfully entered new markets

“The U.S. and European economies are still recovering and the balance of growth is constantly shifting,” says Dorn. “For example, China and Brazil have been experiencing strong growth. They are encountering a maturity curve, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of the issue — manufacturers need to be diversified and have a presence in all major world markets.”

The webinar, “Driving Global Sales for Manufacturers: Why global growth for manufacturers is more important than ever” will be held at 1:00 pm EST on Wednesday, September 19.

Click here to register for this free event!

Success south of the border

When Mexico makes headlines these days, it’s usually for rare but shocking drug-related violence. Unfortunately, this dark spot has blocked an expanding bright spot that is helping many U.S.-based global manufacturers to stay competitive. A variety of companies have set up plants south of the border and are counting on Mexico’s proximity to the United States, cultural similarities, and highly skilled and motivated workforce to fuel growth plans that support domestic job security.

According to the manufacturing trade journal IndustryWeek, foreign direct investment in Mexico rose 9.7 percent in 2011 compared with 2010 to reach $19.44 billion. After a 5.5 percent growth rate in 2011, the Mexican economy is expected to grow 4.5 percent in 2012. Mexico is still considered a lower-cost option compared with the United States, but increasingly, manufacturers are putting production in Mexico for other competitive advantages that benefit the entire company, including U.S. operations.

One such company is Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based Phillips Industries, which makes customized and off-the-shelf electronics for the transportation industry and has operated a plant in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, since 2007.

Phillips Industries manufactures customized trailer harnesses at its Saltillo plant, which accounts for about 25 percent of the company’s volume. Phillips Industries became interested in Mexico in 2006 when attending an open house at a Mexican plant operated by one of its customers. The customer was encouraging its suppliers to site facilities in Mexico. Simultaneously, Phillips was dealing with performance problems at a Dallas plant that seemed to have a low probability of quick resolution.

Rob Phillips, vice president of global operations, said the decision was made to shut down the Dallas plant and move production to Mexico, and the company opted for a “shelter model” to set up and run the operation.

Fundamentally, this model mimics outsourcing, but the manufacturer maintains control of critical functions such as business processes, strategy planning, hiring decisions and product-specific parts and materials procurement. The shelter company handles the administrative side of setting up and managing a plant: permitting and regulation, the importing and set-up of production machinery, utilities relationships and even employment.

Beyond cost savings, the biggest benefits of a shelter model are that manufacturers can launch production much faster, the entire process of setting up a foreign site is simplified and handled by experts, and the producer can devote resources to core competencies and serving customers.

Phillips chose The Offshore Group, which runs two industrial parks in addition to Saltillo, at Guaymas/Empalme, Sonora, and Guadalajara, Jalisco. Rob Phillips said the speed with which the Saltillo plant was set up and began production provided a huge advantage over going it alone.

“We began negotiating in a meeting September; we signed a contract on Halloween day; and we were up and running by the beginning of the next year,” he said. “The decision to move production was a quick decision, and The Offshore Group kept pace with us. We were a company with no experience operating in Mexico, and we were able to set up a world-class facility in a short period of time.”

Phillips said going with the shelter model shortened set-up time because The Offshore Group winnowed job applications to those that matched Phillips’ criteria and needs, imported and set up production machinery and handled all other “localized” aspects of setting up shop in Mexico.

When companies such as Phillips Industries can shorten set-up time for a new facility, it can begin fulfilling customer orders sooner, which in turn shortens the return-on-investment period for up-front costs. As a result, the new operation begins contributing to profitability and cash flow sooner.

Having a shelter facility in Mexico shortens cycle time on other key metrics compared with locating a facility in an overseas location, such as Asia. For example, Rob Phillips said the lead time for Phillips’ customized trailer harnesses that are made in Saltillo is four to five times shorter than competitors’ lead times. Both the shorter shipment route (no ocean to cross for North America) and similarity of time zones, language and cultural factors play into that advantage.

Additionally, Rob Phillips said he has had no problem finding enough properly trained and educated employees. In fact, they are more educated than U.S. professionals in some ways.

“We’ve hired several people right out of college who have been directly educated on lean purchasing for the automotive industry, and I’ve never seen that anywhere else in the world,” Phillips said. “If I need to hire someone, I have an incredible pool of people who are interested and have the experience we need. I’m not having to look for a production manager for six months. I look maybe for a week and a half. I might get four or five very qualified resumes of English-speaking people who really understand lean and are what I am looking for.”

In some cases employees work directly for the manufacturer, while in others they work for the shelter company. Phillips’ employees work for The Offshore Group on paper, but Rob Phillips said they are just like his own employees.

“The shelter actually employs them, but for all intents and purposes, they are Phillips employees. They get a check from the shelter, but they are very loyal to our company and invested in the business.”

Ideally, manufacturers searching for a shelter partner should look for a complete, turnkey solution that allows them to focus on their products and not plant maintenance. For example, Phillips has been able to concentrate on building a pool of local strategic suppliers for materials and components—those that add to customer value—while The Offshore Group handles less-strategic MRO procurement.

“We have had so much success in Mexico that we are constantly looking at what products can we move there,” said Rob Phillips. “There are discussions of moving some of our products for European customers from Shanghai to Mexico because it cuts lead time in half.”

A model plant in Mexico

When Mexico makes headlines these days, it’s usually for rare but shocking drug-related violence. Unfortunately, this dark spot has blocked an expanding bright spot that is helping many U.S.-based global manufacturers to stay competitive. A variety of companies have set up plants south of the border and are counting on Mexico’s proximity to the United States, cultural similarities and highly skilled and motivated workforce to fuel growth plans that support domestic job security.

According to the manufacturing trade journal IndustryWeek, foreign direct investment in Mexico rose 9.7 percent in 2011 compared with 2010 to reach $19.44 billion. After a 5.5 percent growth rate in 2011, the Mexican economy is expected to grow 4.5 percent in 2012. Mexico is still considered a lower-cost option compared with the United States, but increasingly, manufacturers are putting production in Mexico for other competitive advantages that benefit the entire company, including U.S. operations.

One such company is The Intec Group of Palatine, Ill., a global supplier of automotive parts and systems. The company employs 375 people at its Guaymas manufacturing plant, which accounts for $33 million in annual U.S. sales. In addition to U.S. customers, the plant serves customers in Mexico, Canada and China.

According to Intec President and CEO Steven M. Perlman, having a Mexican location improves Intec’s performance both directly and indirectly.

“Directly, it is the highest performer of all our global facilities, including those in Asia,” Perlman said. “The skills and work ethic of the staff there have resulted in Intec Mexico delivering the highest margins to us and the best quality and service to our customers.

“Indirectly, Intec Mexico’s performance has motivated our customers in sourcing more business with Intec’s U.S. and Asia facilities. Intec Mexico is also developing technology that will be used by our other factories.”

Intec has been manufacturing in Mexico since 2002. It has operated under the “manufacturing shelter” business model administered by The Offshore Group, an outsourced manufacturing support or “shelter” company. Fundamentally, the shelter business model mimics outsourcing, but the manufacturer maintains control of critical core functions such as production and manufacturing processes, strategy planning, hiring decisions and product-specific parts and materials procurement. The shelter company handles the administrative side of setting up and managing a plant: permitting and regulation, recruiting both direct and indirect labor, the importing and set-up of production machinery and raw materials, utilities relationships, and the payment of salary and benefits to the workforce.

The Offshore Group runs two industrial parks in Guaymas and Empalme, Sonora, as well as a third park in Saltillo, Coahuila.  The company has also begun to offer its services in Guadalajara, Jalisco.

Beyond cost savings, the biggest benefits of a shelter model in Mexico are that manufacturers can launch production much faster, the entire process of setting up a foreign site is simplified and handled by experts, and the producer can devote resources to core value-added manufacturing competencies and serving customers.

“Using the shelter model offered by The Offshore Group allows us to focus our attention and efforts on our technology, development of our people, and our customers,” Perlman said. “These are the critical activities for any company’s success.”

Our partner in Mexico handles “essential, but not necessarily value-added activities,” Perlman said.

“Those are many of our ‘back office’ or administration requirements, including payroll and benefits administration, tax administration, non-direct material purchasing, recruiting and employment screening. This frees up the top-level people in our organization to work on strategies that provide a better value proposition for our clients.”

Some of the other benefits of the shelter model in Mexico that have helped Intec be more competitive include support and networking with other Offshore Group clients, management of labor-union negotiations, instant credit from suppliers and accurate estimates on how long new building projects and infrastructure upgrades will take.

Perlman said Intec Mexico is an important part of the company’s growth strategy. Because the plant is so efficient, the company has been able to “reclaim” factory floor space for additional growth.

“This has delayed our need to expand beyond the current facility, but we believe we will be expanding our capacity beyond our current facility within five years. In the meantime, the current plan is to increase output and revenues at the existing Mexico facility by at least 20 percent and as much as 50 percent.”

Better because of Mexico

When Mexico makes headlines these days, it’s usually because of rare but shocking drug-related violence. Unfortunately, this dark spot has blocked an expanding bright spot that is helping many U.S.-based global manufacturers to stay competitive. A variety of companies have set up plants south of the border and are counting on Mexico’s proximity to the United States, cultural similarities and highly skilled and motivated workforce to fuel growth plans that support domestic job security.

According to the manufacturing trade journal IndustryWeek, foreign direct investment in Mexico rose 9.7 percent in 2011 compared with 2010 to reach $19.44 billion. After a 5.5 percent growth rate in 2011, the Mexican economy is expected to grow 4.5 percent in 2012. Mexico is still considered a lower-cost option compared with the United States, but increasingly, manufacturers are putting production in Mexico for other competitive advantages that benefit the entire company, including U.S. operations.

One such company is DCM Manufacturing Inc., a Dreison International Co. company and a leader in manufacturing, sales and service of OEM products for the mobile HVAC and industrial heat-transfer markets. Corporate offices are in Cleveland and Grand Prairie, Texas.

DCM manufactures fractional horsepower motors, centrifugal blowers, axial fans and plastic louvers its Mexican plant, about $1 million a month in product.

DCM became interested in manufacturing in Mexico in 2008, and in 2009 decided to work with The Offshore Group – a manufacturing support, or “shelter,” services provider – to move into an existing plant that had been occupied previously by an injection molding company. The move was to better serve large OEM clients that were starting to prefer North American suppliers with near-shored operations because of the longer lead times and ensuing complexities and costs of sourcing from far flung, Asian-based operations.

Fundamentally, the Mexico shelter business model mimics outsourcing, but the manufacturer maintains control of critical value-added functions such as manufacturing processes and quality control, strategy planning, hiring decisions and product-specific parts and materials procurement. The shelter company handles the administrative side of setting up and managing a plant non-core functions: permitting and regulation, the importing and set-up of production machinery, utilities relationships, payroll and benefit management and even the recruitment of both direct and indirect labor.

Beyond cost savings, the biggest benefits of the Mexico shelter model is that manufacturers can launch production much faster; the entire process of setting up a foreign site is simplified and handled by experts; and the producer can devote resources fully to core competencies and serving customers.

Joe Golla, Vice President of Strategic Planning & Global Sourcing for DCM, said the decision to go with the shelter model as opposed to opening a greenfield site had its basis in two reasons:

“We were a little concerned that with the scale of our operation we would add a great deal of overhead with human resources, payroll, safety, union negotiations—all of those things that are attendant to operating in Mexico,” Golla said. “That would have been a lot of overhead relative to our volume. We lacked the expertise, and we were impressed that The Offshore Group had that infrastructure in place. We decided we would ride that infrastructure—for a fee of course, but it was still less expensive than if we had done it ourselves.”

The other lure was the plant opening in The Offshore Group’s Bellavista Industrial Park in Empalme, Sonora. In addition to this industrial park, the company owns and operates two others: The Roca Fuerte Industrial Park in Guaymas, Sonora, and The La Angostura Industrial Park in Saltillo, Coahuila. The Offshore Group has recently begun offering its services in Guadalajara, Jalisco.

“The space was already wired and plumbed for injection molding, and we took over an experienced management team and workforce, which was very important to us,” Golla said.

DCM’s Empalme workforce flexes between 75 to 90 people, but the company is adding 15 to 30 people because they are relocating some work now done in China. Golla said production is running at only 50 percent of capacity, but that’s by design because the company expects more work from the Latin American market, which is growing and needs the types of HVAC components (transportation, construction and agricultural vehicles) that DCM supplies.

“We expect that capacity to be filled in short order because we are in a position to offer the larger customers and OEMs a completely non-dependent-on-Asia model,” Golla said. “In Latin America there’s a 20 percent duty on products from China, so we were able to immediately drop our costs by 20 percent by near-shoring.”

Those that think DCM’s near-shoring strategy is taking jobs away from U.S. workers would be surprised to learn that the opposite is true. With the emergence of a global economy, companies have had to build global operations. DCM’s near-shoring model is not in place to push down costs as low as possible—rather, it’s to respond to the needs of their global clients.

“Our model is not Mexico-dependent,” Golla said. “Our parent company has greatly expanded our manufacturing opportunities in Cleveland and elsewhere in the U.S. We have stocking facilities in the U.S., and our sales, engineering and other technical positions are in the United States. And we’re hiring in those areas.”

Low-cost and lots of room to grow

When Mexico makes headlines these days, it’s usually because of rare but shocking drug-related violence. Unfortunately, this dark spot has blocked an expanding bright spot that is helping many U.S.-based global manufacturers to stay competitive. A variety of companies have set up plants south of the border and are counting on Mexico’s proximity, cultural similarities and highly skilled and motivated workforce to fuel growth plans that support domestic job security.

According to the manufacturing trade journal IndustryWeek, foreign direct investment in Mexico rose 9.7 percent in 2011 compared with 2010 to reach $19.44 billion. After a 5.5 percent growth rate in 2011, the Mexican economy is expected to grow 4.5 percent in 2012. Mexico is still considered a lower-cost option compared with the United States, but increasingly, manufacturers are putting production in Mexico for other competitive advantages that benefit the entire company, including U.S. operations.

One such company is Miamisburg, Ohio-based CBC Connect, a global supplier of wiring harness design and assembly, and value-added electrical products. The company employs 150 people at its Saltillo production plant, which ships mostly to customers in the United States, but also to some in Canada and China. (CBC Connect is owned by WESCO Distribution Inc., which employs roughly 6,000 people globally.)

“Having a manufacturing location in a low-cost country helps us to win business,” said Jeff Trosper, CBC Connect Branch Manager. “In addition, the La Angostura Industrial Park, where our plant is located, provides room for us to grow. They owners (The Offshore Group) have plenty of land, so we won’t outgrow our available space because the space is virtually limitless.”

CBC Connect has been manufacturing in Mexico since 2004. The company uses a shelter company in Mexico, The Offshore Group.  In addition to the La Angostura Industrial Park in Saltillo, The Offshore Group operates industrial parks in Guaymas/Empalme, Sonora. The company has also begun to offer its outsourced manufacturing support, or “shelter,” services in Guadalajara, Jalisco.

Fundamentally, the Mexico shelter business model mimics outsourcing, but the manufacturer maintains control of critical functions such as manufacturing processes and quality control, strategy planning, hiring decisions and product-specific parts and materials procurement. The shelter company handles the non-core function administrative side of setting up and managing a plant: permitting and regulation, the import and set-up of production machinery and raw materials used in production, utilities relationships, the recruitment of both direct and indirect labor and even the payment and benefits administration of employees.

Beyond economies-of-scale cost savings, the biggest benefits of the Mexico manufacturing shelter model are that manufacturers can launch production much faster; the entire process of setting up a foreign site is simplified and handled by experts; and the producer can devote resources to core manufacturing competencies and serving customers.

“The shelter company takes care of everything from human relations to provision of manufacturing space to local purchasing for MRO and more,” Trosper said. “It would be very difficult for us to assume these responsibilities state-side, and do them correctly according to local regulations. The shelter company comes at a cost, but being able to focus our efforts on other facets of the business is beneficial.”

Another Ohio-based company, DCM Manufacturing Inc., Cleveland, has also found that the shelter model supports its strategy of focusing on what adds value for customers.

“We were a little concerned that with the scale of our operation we would add a great deal of overhead with human resources, payroll, safety, union negotiations—all of those things that are attendant to operating in Mexico,” said Joe Golla, Vice President of Strategic Planning & Global Sourcing for DCM, which manufactures fractional horsepower motors, centrifugal blowers, axial fans and plastic louvers at its plant in The Offshore Group’s Bellavista Industrial Park in Empalme, Sonora—about $1 million a month in product.

“That would have been a lot of overhead relative to our volume. We lacked the expertise, and we were impressed that The Offshore Group had that infrastructure in place. We decided we would ride that infrastructure—for a fee of course, but it was still less expensive than if we had done it ourselves.”

For DCM, a Mexico-based manufacturing plant enables the company to offer shorter lead times, a less expensive product, and a less time-consuming and complicated partnership model than an Asia-based plant for its large OEM customers in the transportation industry. Golla said the Empalme plant is running at 50 percent capacity right now, but that won’t last long.

“We expect that capacity to be filled in short order because we are in a position to offer the larger customers and OEMs a completely non-dependent-on-Asia model,” Golla said. “In Latin America there’s a 20 percent duty on products from China, so we were able to immediately drop our costs by 20 percent by near-shoring.”

Those who think a near-shoring strategy is taking jobs away from U.S. workers would be surprised to learn that the opposite is true. With the emergence of a global economy, companies have had to build global operations. DCM’s near-shoring model is not in place to push down costs as low as possible—rather, it’s to respond to the needs of their global clients.

“Our model is not Mexico-dependent,” Golla said. “Our parent company has greatly expanded our manufacturing opportunities in Cleveland and elsewhere in the U.S. We have stocking facilities in the U.S., and our sales, engineering and other technical positions are in the United States. And we’re hiring in those areas.”

Going global with less hassle

When Mexico makes headlines these days, it’s usually for rare but shocking drug-related violence. Unfortunately, this dark spot has blocked an expanding bright spot that is helping many U.S.-based global manufacturers to stay competitive. A variety of companies have set up plants south of the border and are counting on Mexico’s proximity, cultural similarities and highly skilled and motivated workforce to fuel growth plans that support domestic job security.

According to the manufacturing trade journal IndustryWeek, foreign direct investment in Mexico rose 9.7 percent in 2011 compared with 2010 to reach $19.44 billion. After a 5.5 percent growth rate in 2011, the Mexican economy is expected to grow 4.5 percent in 2012. Mexico is still considered a lower-cost option compared with the United States, but increasingly, manufacturers are putting production in Mexico for other competitive advantages that benefit the entire company, including U.S. operations.

One such company is Atlanta-based Whitepath Fab Tech, a contract manufacturer for wiring and wiring harnesses, control panel assembly, custom molding and value-added assembly. The company employs 70 people at its Saltillo plant, which primarily serves one Mexico-based client but also enables it to be a global player in the electronics assembly marketplace. The company’s other three plants are based in Georgia.

“The Mexico plant gives us flexibility,” said Randy Durden, CEO of Whitepath. “If we really needed to get a low-cost volume to someone because we know they aren’t going to pay the U.S. price, it helps to have that option. Plus, we have an international presence. We are not just some small shop from Georgia.”

Whitepath has its own plant in Saltillo, Coahuila, but is a client of The Offshore Group, a shelter-services company in Mexico. The Offshore Group runs two industrial parks in addition to Saltillo, at Guaymas/Empalme, Sonora, and Guadalajara, Jalisco, and has initiated service to manufacturers in Guadalajara, Jalisco.

Fundamentally, the shelter model mimics outsourcing, but the manufacturer maintains control of critical functions such as production processes, engineering and quality control, in addition to strategy planning, hiring decisions and product-specific parts and materials procurement. The shelter company handles the administrative side of setting up and maintaining a plant: permitting and regulation, the importing and set-up of production machinery, utilities relationships and even recruitment of labor, both direct and indirect.

“They take care of all the headaches and hassles,” Durden said. “Just being able to focus on transitioning the product has been huge instead of worrying about paperwork, hiring, working with the local government, water, power, Internet service. We wouldn’t have known where to start without them.”

Beyond economies-of-scale cost savings, the biggest benefits of a shelter model are that manufacturers can launch production much faster; the entire process of setting up a foreign site is simplified and handled by experts; and the producer can devote resources to core competencies and serving customers.

“All of our conversations with our Mexico team are about making deliveries, about quality, about production schedules,” Durden said. “I don’t know that we have ever had a conversation about paperwork or notifying local authorities about something like putting in a driveway. We just let The Offshore Group take care of it.”

The Saltillo plant accounts for about 10 percent of Whitepath’s business, and business in general is expanding, Durden said. Here again, the shelter model has been beneficial.

“If we need to add people very quickly, they have the resources that enable us to do that. You don’t have to go through the process of finding and screening them. As a matter of fact, we called them today and said we need five new people Monday. We’ll have five candidates there Monday.”

For companies looking for a shelter partner, a crucial differentiator can be workforce support. Whether the employees work for the client company or the shelter company, there should be a strong training-and-education offering from the shelter company. Manufacturers need an abundance of skilled workers in order to build long-term viability, and such workers are going to be in higher demand and shorter supply in the developed world in the near future.

According to Armando Lee, general manager for The Offshore Group’s Mexican subsidiary, Maquilas Tetakawi, S.A. de C.V., the company created a manufacturing technology training center where it can train on a variety of skills such as CNC machining, plastic injection, metrology, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. Open courses are offered for client employees and customized training is developed as requested by clients. In most cases, the state government provides financial support.

Another initiative started in 2010 offers teenagers attending public technical schools the opportunity to apprentice at client companies. The program runs for two years and includes four days of hands-on education at a manufacturing site each week and one day of classroom instruction. About 100 students are enrolled, and indications are that the program will be highly successful. Already, one company has offered one of the students a scholarship to study engineering.

Another program, Metromatematicas, addresses skilled labor needs on a deeper level. The Offshore Group is paying for public school teachers to be trained on how to teach applied mathematics. (Traditionally, only math theory has been taught.) The company also lobbied the regional governor to support the program and won his agreement to supply public money to build applied math laboratories at schools. The labs will include modern production equipment that is used in aerospace and other industries.

“We wanted to give something back to the community, and we decided the best way to do this is through contributing to the education of future generations,” Lee said. “This effort is long term.”

Fiscal cliff fears vs. probabilities

Bob Leggett, CFA, Senior Investment Strategist, FirstMerit Wealth Management Services

Who’s afraid of the fiscal cliff? Apparently just about everybody! In our opinion, this topic is nearly as overplayed as last year’s debt ceiling fiasco. People feared the U.S. debt ceiling would not be raised and the government would have to shut down. We disagreed, partly because we are realists and partly because of the “Laws.” First, economist Herbert Stein’s Law states: “If something cannot go forever, it will stop.” I have morphed that into Leggett’s Law: “If something is impossible, it will not occur.”

Using our Laws, we determined the U.S. would not shut down its great fiscal machinery that extracts and/or borrows money from some people so it can be given to other people. An actual “debt default” was totally out of the question, but there was still a great fear that we were headed for one.

A similar situation is taking place now, only with a broader topic, the fiscal cliff. It is certainly not impossible for a few people (as in the movie, “Thelma & Louise”) or even for a segment of the population (Arctic lemmings) to go over a cliff, but intentionally driving the U.S. economy off a cliff seems, well, impossible.

The fiscal cliff is a mix of expiring tax cuts (Bush tax cuts, Alternative Minimum Tax inflation patch and the payroll tax cut) and spending cuts (the “sequestration” which chops 10 percent from defense and 8 percent from all discretionary spending; Medicare doctor payments; and extended unemployment benefits).

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office added fuel to the fire recently with their projection that the fiscal cliff will amount to $487B in 2013, a 3.1 percent GDP reduction. With real GDP currently creeping higher at a 2 percent pace, that reduction would result in negative GDP (a recession). That’s worth fearing! But what is the probability of such an outcome?

It is very close to impossible to imagine that none of the fiscal cliff issues will be addressed, either in a lame duck post-election session, or retrospectively by the President and Congress, whoever they may be. In fact, several of the fiscal cliff issues are perennials. AMT, Medicare payments and tax increases threaten the economy year after year — much like the dreaded debt ceiling. Somehow, the cliff dive is averted each time. To quote Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” So, however improbable it may seem that our politicians will act like grownups who care about our country’s future, in the end they will (as always) be forced to act.

Does that mean we are home free? Alas, no. We believe the unrelenting barrage of negative campaign ads and the real uncertainty as to exactly which fiscal cliff issues will be avoided (and when) are a major factor in the 2012 economic slowdown. Since businesses and consumers are uncertain, they are slowing their spending and investment, which has caused a minor negative feedback loop and dropped GDP into its current 2 percent stall speed growth rate.

Nonetheless, despite the distressingly slow pace, both business and consumer spending are growing at a rate that more than offsets government spending cuts. Some key sectors such as housing and energy production are improving, but that’s not enough to reaccelerate the economy. What we need is a resolution to the fiscal cliff fears. Before the election is highly unlikely, but soon thereafter looks highly probable to us.

Our plan is to step away from the fears and concentrate on the impact of the probable fiscal cliff resolution. Coupling that with a very friendly Federal Reserve (QE3 anyone?) and a more-friendly European Central Bank, we expect economic expansion into 2013. With the Market Meter at +2, we remain fully invested in client equity accounts, but with a modestly defensive tilt to our tactical asset allocation recommendations.

The opinions and information contained in this message have been derived from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but FirstMerit Bank, N.A. makes no representation as to their timeliness or completeness. This message does not constitute individual investment, legal or tax advice. All opinions are reflective of judgments made on the original date of publication and do not constitute a guarantee of present or future financial market conditions.

Bob Leggett, CFA, is the Senior Investment Strategist at FirstMerit Wealth Management Services. Reach him at [email protected]

Achieving a distinct advantage through client data

Mike Herston, Vice President, IT Client Services, InfoCision

The ability to analyze and use data, often in real-time, is a growing and important driver behind providing a superior customer experience on the phone. Your contact center is a priceless resource that sustains and cultivates loyal customers.

“With our demographic and psychographic information, we can deliver superior customer service and a very strong ROI without seeing degradation in the audience size or the results,” says Mike Herston, vice president of IT client services at InfoCision. “It’s simple in our business to say, ‘This person looks like my best donor or my best customer so we should always call or mail them.’ Eventually they will fatigue. What we can do is expand that list with like-kind prospects so you don’t call the same people over and over again.”

Herston and InfoCision’s Business Intelligence Group, a marriage of the marketing and IT departments, utilize data analytics, the process of reviewing raw data to draw conclusions from it. In addition to highlighting opportunities for greater ROI, this process provides the ability to efficiently connect with customers on the for-profit side, or donors on the nonprofit side.

“Budgets are tight for a lot of companies right now, given the economy,” Herston says. “So they need to look for more effective ways to reach their customers, and they’re looking to analytics to be able to do that. It’s really about getting down and peeling the layers of the onion away so we can tailor a message to a particular customer. It’s all about building that customer relationship and being able to anticipate the customer’s needs.”

In the last few years, the data analytics industry has become more procedure-driven rather than data-driven, Herston says. This is tied to the vast amounts of information available and decreasing timelines for deliverables. There’s also a greater reliance on software to be the decision-maker on final outputs or results.

“Where InfoCision differentiates itself is that we’re able to integrate sound business understanding with statistical modeling,” Herston explains. “We certainly use up-to-date statistical analytics. But at the same time, we have an understanding of the day-to-day business of our clients and the audiences that they are trying to reach so we know what we’re actually profiling or modeling. It also means we’re not totally reliant on statistical software.”

Equally important to obtaining data, is using it. For example, script-on-screen technology can take the data and tailor a message in real-time to the individual being called allowing for a very personalized conversation.

“What we’re able to do is enhance the calling experience for that donor or that customer,” Herston says. “We have the ability to model people and predict their propensity to say yes by scoring them in real-time. We can actually tailor a call treatment based on that person’s information. We can tailor a script based on the fact that we know someone is male or female or if we know their age range. We can tailor a script to a household that has a presence of children. The whole idea is that it allows us to deliver a script that resonates with the person we’re calling.”

Companies need to strategically align themselves with partners that can help them leverage the growing amount of data available.

“We make a lot of calls, and that gives us a lot of past behaviors to model,” Herston explains. “We can model internal data specific to a client, and break it down further to the specific audience depending on what the client’s goal is. Let me put it this way, we don’t operate on the one-size-fits-all model.”

Mike Herston is the vice president of IT client services at InfoCision. Reach him at [email protected] or (330) 668-1400.

Common misconceptions about patents

Roland Tong, Senior Patent Attorney, Brooks Kushman, PC

Patent law is one of the most complicated areas of law. Not only does a patent combine both law and technology, patent laws are also developed from many sources, such as the US Patent and Trademark Office and the federal courts from all over the US. It is only natural that many inventors and entrepreneurs are confused with its nuances and complexities.

Below are some of the common misconceptions about patents:

1. If I obtain a patent, I have a right to use and sell the invention.

A patent provides the right to exclude others from making, using or selling the patented invention. Many companies find this very valuable, as they can expand or preserve their market shares, demand licenses or royalties, and prevent competition. A patent does not provide a license to use, make or sell a product. Having a patent does not guarantee that you will not be exposed to any liability for infringing other peoples’ patents. You do not need a patent to manufacture or sell a product. However, you will not have any exclusivity, and any company can compete with you. Many investors do not like to invest in non-patented ideas or businesses of start ups, as they are afraid that bigger and well established companies can freely compete against them.

2. I must have a prototype before I can apply for a patent.

If you can describe your invention such that a person skilled in the art listening or reading your description can make and use your invention without much experimentation, then you are ready to apply for a patent. Obtaining a prototype may be good in terms of refining the manufacturing process or ironing out any flaws of the concept, but it can be very expensive and can take some time. Many companies that file patent applications do not have working prototypes.

3. I can stop an infringer with a “patent pending.”

A patent pending merely means you have a pending patent application that still needs to be examined by a patent examiner. Since your invention has not been proven to be novel and to meet the other requirements to obtain a patent, you really have not perfected or cemented your exclusive rights. Your  patent pending may, however, allow you to seek for retroactive damages if you obtain a judgment for patent infringement against infringers, for instance, all the way back to the time your application was first published.

4. I must have a patent search done prior to filing my patent application.

A patent search is not mandatory. However, it is worthwhile to do, as it may save you time, resources, and money. The patenting process can be expensive and can take over three years. You should try to determine your chances of obtaining a patent. After all, you do not want to spend the time, resources, and money only to find out that your idea has been practiced before.

5. All patents are the same.

Whether you are trying to protect your invention or you are trying to make sure you do not infringe on another’s patent, you need to know what each type of patent means. Design and utility patents protect different aspects of an invention, and they provide different scopes of protection. Design patents only protect the way articles look, their shapes, configurations, or their ornamentations. Utility patents, on the other hand, protect the way articles are used and the way they work. From the standpoint of protecting your invention, design patents may be very easy to be avoided and thus offer very limited protection. From the standpoint of making sure you do not infringe on another’s patent, utility patents may require that you consider various types of infringement. They may require that you review their file histories and consider their related counterparts, such as continuation and divisional applications.

6. If I modify a patented product by 10, 20, or 30 percent, I will be free from patent infringement liability.

There are various ways a patent can be infringed — literally, by equivalents, or by contributory infringement. Literal infringement means the claim language of the patent directly corresponds to the infringing product. Thus, if you do not review the claims of a patent, you may never know whether you infringe it regardless of how much you have modified your product. Even if you have reviewed the claims and believe that there are differences between the claims and your modified product, you may still infringe by the doctrine of equivalents. Under the doctrine of equivalents, if your modified product contains elements identical or equivalent to each claimed element of the patented invention, your product still infringes the patent.

7. As an owner of the company or as a research supervisor, I should always be listed as an inventor to my employees’ inventions.

It is crucial to name the right inventors on a patent application. A patent can later be invalidated if it did not include the right inventors. An inventor in the patent sense must have contributed to the conception of the invention. Patent owners and inventors should not be confused. If the idea was conceived by an employee, you should have the employee assign his rights to the company. This is the proper way of making sure that the company will own the rights to the invention, and not by adding yourself as an inventor simply because you own the company. If the idea was conceived by a lower ranking employee, it does not mean that you have to list the employee’s supervisor as the inventor. The key is to determine who contributed to the conception of the invention that is claimed in the patent application.

Because there are many misconceptions about patents, it is important to seek the advice and guidance from a registered patent attorney.

Roland Tong is a Senior Patent Attorney at Brooks Kushman, PC and can be reached by phone at (213) 622-3096 or by email at [email protected] Brooks Kushman, PC (www.brookskushman.com) is a full service intellectual property law firm in Detroit and in Los Angeles with attorneys having advanced degrees in various technical fields.

Don’t just say ‘customers first’ — mean it!

Bernie Moreno, Owner, Collection Auto Group

This is the third part of an interview with Bernie Moreno, the owner of Collection Auto Group. For more, please see:

Collection Auto Group

Managing growth while maintaining culture

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Make a decision. Too many times in business we are faced with hundreds of choices and options. Given the fast pace at which business moves today, you have to trust your judgment and make a decision. Second piece of advice that goes along with this: be right at least 51 percent of the time!

When you think about putting your customers first, describe your philosophy for what that means and how you impart that to your team members?

Customer’s first is a philosophy EVERY business CLAIMS to have as part of their culture. There is no organization that would say they don’t value their clients. However, saying it and LIVING it are two entirely different issues. We live that philosophy by creating a culture in which our team members put the customer at the center of everything we do. We know our clients can “fire us” at any time and we never take for granted that we must execute every day. Of course, that culture hinges on having great people, which we are very fortunate to have an abundance of.

How do you empower your staff to go above and beyond for customers?

They are defaulted to say “yes.” If a team member is going to disappointment a client, that’s my job. I am the only one allowed to say “no.”

What is your philosophy for continuous growth — and continuous improvement?

The business world is changing at a speed that is unprecedented in history. We look at ways of reinventing ourselves, not just changing and evolving.

When you think about your business, what keeps you up at night, and what do you do to resolve it?

Nothing keeps me up at night. Business is my career and I never personalize it by letting it stress my personal life. That would not be fair to my family.

Collection Auto Group

28450 Lorain Road

North Olmsted, OH 44070

Phone: 440,716.2700

E-mail: [email protected]

Web: www.collectionautogroup.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Collection-Auto-Group