Like the defenders at Stalingrad during World War II, for the last year or so the metalworking industry has been hunkered down under assault from the seemingly relentless siege cannons of recession. And the industry has had casualties. People have lost jobs, and businesses of various sizes and tenure have failed.
Some revered names in the machine tool world have ceased to exist or find themselves in different chapters of bankruptcy. There have been consolidations and re-organizations of various kinds. Even in the trade magazine business, we've seen some long-time and venerable competitors go by the wayside. It has been tough.
Maybe in part it's the Spring season, and certainly it's some of the better economic news of late relating to manufacturing, and perhaps I'm just a wide-eyed optimist, but as I write this column I think we've hit bottom and started back up. There, I said it. I'm out here on the limb.
OK, go with me on this.
It's a tricky thing to manage a metalworking manufacturing business. On one side of the coin, there is tendency to be overly optimistic when the business cycle is in ascension. In good times, with the throttle wide open, it's difficult to precisely time when or if the brakes should be applied.
This is especially true of the unusually long and strong recovery we had during the 1990s. Companies get used to a given level of business. Even if the level is a historic deviation, rare is the manager who can resist haymaking with the sun out.
Conversely, there is an inherent danger of getting too used to working under recession-driven low levels of business. Obviously, when orders dry up, measures must be taken. Cut backs and cost reductions are all part of the bad times arsenal and must be used to survive.
But as bad times sink in and become more "normal," there is danger of settling into a recession mentality that can inhibit the shop's ability to respond to signs of recovery. Much like missing recessionary indicators when business is very good, one can miss recovery when orders are in the tank. Timing is everything, and shops that time recovery right are going to be first in line when orders are placed.
How do you know when the time is right? Try communication. Now is a good time to get on the phone with or e-mail your customers. Talk to them about how they see business and the execution and timing of their plans. In effect, let your customers know you've survived and are ready to get back to business. We may not have much control over a recession, but the psychology of recovery is in our hands.