Manufacturing remains in flux, but growing again Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2010

By the time financial markets around the globe started to tumble in October 2008, so much of the manufacturing industry was already deep in a recession that had stretched across the better part of a decade. Millions of workers had been sent home. Thousands of factories had been shuttered. Whole companies just disappeared. None of it was coming back. It was gone for good.

Manufacturing was not, of course, the only industry hit hard prior to the start of the larger recession, but perhaps no industry was affected more since the turn of the millennium. About a quarter of a million manufacturing jobs were lost over the course of a decade, the large majority of them prior to 2008. As the recession spread from one industry to another, manufacturers often still let go of the most employees.

The cycle was vicious, and it continued month after month.

How is it possible, then, that less than two years after the economy turned, manufacturing is on the rise again? Manufacturing activity increased again in May, according to the Supply Management’s index, the 10th straight month of growth. And even though that growth has started to slow a bit, growth is still growth. Were the 2008 levels just so low that any growth is significant? Or is the sustained increase in manufacturing a sign for the rest of the economy? Nothing is certain, but many indicators do point up, though there are still struggles and shortcomings.

“Outside of our specialty and highly technical manufacturers, who have weathered the storm pretty well, the more general manufacturers haven’t fared so well,” says Jeff Bugenhagen, assurance partner, BDO Seidman LLP. “There have been a lot of layoffs in the industry, there has been the underutilization of plants, and what goes along with that is the less demand there is for the products, which translates into some financial distress.

“The way things are going, it seems that turnaround is taking a lot longer than anyone originally thought.”

Prepare for more change

What was normal two years ago will almost certainly not be normal during the second half of 2010, or even during the first months of 2011. What was normal then, in fact, might never be normal again. Even though it might be a cliché, change really is the new normal in manufacturing.

Among those changes are the new gaps in the supply chains of some larger original equipment manufacturers, the result of smaller companies closing, which might cause delays and problems in receiving supplies in a timely manner. A number of industry experts say the availability of credit will also likely change, what with banks starting to somewhat relax their requirements. But the biggest change might be the addition of manufacturing jobs.

“Manufacturing is now the only business sector that has been adding jobs for five months,” says Emily Stover DeRocco, president, The Manufacturing Institute. “Manufacturers have added 126,000 new jobs.

“But the focus is going to continue to be more on what we call mass customization, as opposed to mass commoditization. This reflects, again, the industry’s response to globalization, which is that U.S. manufacturers, in order to maintain their global leadership, have had to move to a higher quality and a higher value product.”

And that higher quality product will almost certainly lead to more changes in the way manufacturers and so many other companies plan and do business, the ripple effect across industries.

For example, if you have not already reassessed your vision and your plan for your company, that should move to the top of your priority list.

“You need to stay active in your marketplace and make sure you put out the best product you can,” Bugenhagen says. “You need to have the appropriate network distribution, you have to have the right people in place and the right marketing and distribution channels.”

Keep the long term in perspective

Two years ago, few manufacturers were prepared for the recession. But you can prepare for the ascension, however slow and modest it might be and whenever it does become more noticeable, by being smart during these coming months and years.

You might think about diversifying your product lines into other markets, so you aren’t as dependent on single-source customers, and, more generally, diversifying your portfolio. You might also research how to best tap in to loans, grants or tax credits that are available from various departments of federal, state and local government. And you will likely want to consider your risks, especially over the long term.

“It’s critical that what lines a manufacturer has up and running are the most technically advanced equipment they can possibly have in their facilities,” Bugenhagen says. “There’s not the excess cash flow that allows them to reinvest in new and updated equipment — but the newer the technology and the equipment and the process, the more efficiently everything can run and the less it takes labor-intensive involvement in that process. Maintaining your equipment is very important in these times.”

Technology and education, as would be expected, can also play a role in increasing your business. Several experts discussed how the advantage of U.S. companies is U.S. technology. Domestic manufacturers continue to be at the forefront when it comes to utilizing technology in their processes. To ensure that the technology is operated correctly and efficiently, workers should be more educated than they were 40, 20, even 10 years ago, and with so many quality workers still unemployed, there is a deep talent pool from which to hire.

Most important, though, is to do everything with the long term — and that refers to years and decades, not just months and quarters — in mind.

Ask questions

As you prepare for 2011, it will be important to keep any number of questions in mind. What those questions are will depend on your industry, your goals and your financial standing at the moment, but there are some questions that all businesses need to be asking right now. And those are: What is happening in your industry? Is it expanding or contracting? Is your company expanding or contracting? Where do you see your company in 2015? In 2020? Is your company in the right market? Is it in the right position in the market? What are the strengths and expertise that your company has that could be adapted to another market or product line? Where can you turn to think through your situation? Will your company be able to receive a large enough line of credit during the next year? Will you be able to fund your growth? How sustainable are the current demands? And, the great unknown, how will global events affect your company?

“If and when this turns around and business returns to normal conditions and normal growth conditions, do you have the financial wherewithal in place to take advantage of that turnaround?” Bugenhagen says. “What we’re hearing from those private equity and private finance groups is that this is highly overlooked by the owners. Do they have the capital in place to take advantage when things turn around?”

With all of that in mind, you will also need to think about innovation as much as ever. How will you move ideas from the collective mind of your company to the drawing board to the marketplace? Live in the present but remain focused on the future.

“Eyes on the future,” DeRocco says. “But remember the volatility of this market.”