Small Business

It's No Time for Sending in the Clowns


By Lisa Bergson My company, MEECO, reminds me of a stock character in a Kerry/Edwards stump speech. No matter how hard we work, we can't seem to get ahead. Next week marks our 56th year in business, which for a small manufacturing company in the Northeast is quite an achievement. In years past, we'd take the afternoon off and celebrate our anniversary at my house with a poolside party for employees and their families. We enjoyed copious catered food under a big white tent, along with hired clowns and DJs, games and prizes, volleyball, horseshoes, and extravagant flower arrangements. Some years, we had theme parties, like Hawaii and the Sixties, with awards for the best costumes.

This time, all we have going is an employee potluck during lunch break in the back of the plant. At least we're marking the occasion. Last year we were so beset with pay cuts and short work weeks that we skipped the whole thing. "We'll celebrate our 55th year when we're whole again," I announced at our weekly Open Book Meeting. We didn't get there in time.

SPRING IN FALL. It wasn't until late in '03 that the semiconductor industry, our primary market, began to recover from its deepest, longest downturn. Even now, cash flow is strong, and so is our backlog. We're operating full-time on full salary. Normally, I would yell, "Party!" (I used to be accused of running a party plant.) But, in July, MEECO's business slowed to a trickle. "I don't remember ever seeing it this bad," bemoaned Terry Lasher, a production technician going on her 25th year.

"It's been worse," I told her, pulling out a little green book from my purse. In it, I keep a tally of orders going back five years. Peering at our skimpy monthly order board, which hangs over the copier in the front office, some employees blame vacations. "No one's around," the salesmen complain. "It will get better in the fall," our marketing manager predicts. I just hope they're right.

For, strange as it may seem, in times of macroeconomic uncertainty, I find that people do not buy our trace moisture analyzers. When Clinton ran against Bush the Elder, we went into free fall for the six weeks leading up to the election. The same held true during the relatively short span of Desert Storm. Now, between the war, the election, and the economy, if there ever was a time of mega-uncertainty, this is it.

WISH LIST. As a result, many of us in the manufacturing sector have started to hunker down. Last week one of my board members, a component maker, confided, "We were all set for a $400,000 expansion, and I pulled the plug." There are so many improvements I'd like to make to my own facility -- renovating our 1962 restrooms, updating our computer systems, getting new servers, expanding the parking lot, and putting an awning over the employee entrance, to name a few. Even more, I'd like to provide merit raises and cost of living increases for our people. And I'd like to hire skilled professionals to relieve those who are presently wearing two and three hats.

The irony is, the more all of us postpone investment and expansion, the worse it gets. I sell the kind of capital equipment my capital-intensive brothers are reluctant to buy. If this keeps uphe thought of having to announce yet another round of pay cuts?? don't think I can face it. As it is, I'm having trouble coming up with a speech for Monday's event. "The sky's the limit," I told the party-planning team, when we opted for blue and white balloons and streamers, a bow to MEECO's colors.

Right now, I have to keep my feet firmly on the ground. One thing I know is that I'm not alone. My people are usually out in front of me when it comes to anticipating austerity measures. Through that whole long downturn, they hung tough and continued to turn out quality products and develop new innovations. Therein lies our strength.

THE RIGHT WORDS.?We've got the goods, and we can deliver. What we must do is step up our effort to find active customers. Last week, for example, a trip to the U.S. heartland put me in touch with a substantial new market for our technology. It's going to take some work, but that's never been an obstacle. Later next week, I'll be off to Asia, and my regional sales managers are all hitting the road as well.

There's hope, but it's no time for hired clowns and hothouse flowers. I'll cut some fresh from our garden tomorrow. This weekend, I picked up little treats and mementos to mark each person's contribution. Maybe Stan "the man", our service engineer, who can really croon, will be sweet and treat us to a song.

Because we're not blue -- we're red, white, and blue -- an American company made up of folks of all races, ages, and backgrounds. When it comes to spirit, we're not gonna put the brakes on. After 56 years, we're in it for the long haul. (I think I found the theme for my speech.) Lisa Bergson is president and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, she was a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com


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