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Challenges Facing Midsize Manufacturing Companies

This article originally appeared in Business Insider

As we review the landscape for small and midsize manufacturing companies, we see considerable challenges.  A review of some items in the February 2013 ISM Report on Business® is instructive (see report here).

Gross Margins

Gross Margins have been an issue that we have focused on extensively at ACM Partners.  The operating expenses of a company are certainly important, but in our experience understanding where gross margins might be headed and why is often a useful exercise in predicting pockets of distress in the broader economy.

The gross margin picture suggests that challenges lay ahead.  In February the index of prices paid by manufacturers increased by 5 percentage points.  As companies lose the ability to protect gross margins, management teams often panic and seek to address the problem by increasing sales.  The pursuit of higher sales at declining margins and with less discipline over the costs of servicing new clients is a long-established recipe for taking a company from mild under-performance to deep distress.

Inventories: Up at Producers, Down Among Customers

Among small and midsize industrial companies we anticipate demand shocks as customers, now comfortable with a historically low level of inventory, respond more quickly to changes in end-market demand.  The disconnect between customer inventories having been below 50 (the point at which they are considered too low) for nearly 4 years and producer inventories increasing suggests that producers are increasingly ill-equipped to address fluctuations in demand, and may be making the implicit choice to tie up cash in increased working capital rather than in capital expenditures.

These diverging trends in inventories present two serious challenges to small and midsize manufacturers:

1.      From a pricing standpoint the existence of slow-moving inventory will provide for some companies a temptation to sell at reduced prices, further eating into gross margins.

2.      From a financing standpoint this approach is a recipe for trouble, as asset based lenders will advance considerably less on inventory than on accounts receivable.  Additionally, for troubled small and midsize industrial companies there are fewer options to get any availability on inventory, further heightening the risk of this approach.  

Changing Power Dynamics

Power flows up and down the supply chain, depending on industry, quality of management, availability of financing and a multiplicity of other factors.  At the moment large national and multi-national customers control the fates of their suppliers, both the small and midsize manufacturers making the products, and the similarly sized distribution companies that store those products and handle order fulfillment.  As these dominant customers seek to maximize profitability and optimize their working capital, they are causing ripple effects throughout their supply chains.  The dominant strategy for the small and midsize industrial companies seeking to adjust is to become indispensable by occupying high value niches or gaining scale.  

Conclusion

Companies will continue to make and ship things, and so manufacturers and distributors will continue to have a role in the economy. But there is not guarantee that their role will be a profitable one.

 

About the Author

David Johnson (@TurnaroundDavid) is Founder and Managing Partner of Abraxas Group, a boutique advisory firm focused on providing transformational leadership to middle market companies in transition.  Over the course of his career David has served as financial advisor and interim executive to dozens of middle market companies.  David is also a recognized thought leader on the topics of business transformation, change management, interim leadership, restructuring, turnaround, and value creation.  He can be contacted at: david@abraxasgp.com.

Big Data and Organizational Fluidity

This article also appeared in Business Insider

The term “Big Data” and the unfortunate hype surrounding it obscures a crucial development in the management of organizations, regardless of size. We have definitively moved into an era of copious data, and the challenge for all stakeholders in an organization is to find ways to analyze that data, discern actionable insights from the analysis, implement changes based on those insights and analyze new data in order to measure actual versus forecast results. The days of analysis being anything other than a core feature of the day-to-day operations of an organization are over; we have entered a period of continuous, iterative change.

This new world calls for experimentation as a central operating tenet. The organizations that thrive in coming years will be those capable of embracing this new fluidity.

Gold in the Terabytes

For capital providers, there are outsized returns to be generated by seizing the opportunity that our new, data immersed age offers.  The wealth of data offers tantalizing prospects, as savvy management teams and their advisors push those companies willing to make the effort into a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement, identifying compelling growth opportunities, driving margin improvement, eliminating unnecessary expenditures, and overall driving substantial improvements in enterprise value.

We are moving far beyond simple SKU analysis and the development of optimal pricing models.  By understanding high quality data sources both inside and outside and organizations, areas of inefficiency can be relentlessly targeted, and with the continuous stream of data that most organizations generate, small projects that yield results can quickly be scaled up to organization-wide initiatives.

The Certainty of Casualties

Management by rule of thumb is anachronistic; based on what we are seeing in the market we anticipate that those small and mid-sized organizations willing and able to adjust will find a data savvy business model to be a compelling force multiplier for an organization of any size.  Those organizations that fail to adapt will find themselves at a severe and growing disadvantage as their competitors utilize superior insights to grow market share and identify new pockets of opportunity.

Additionally, blind adherence to data will also produce casualties.  Massive data sets are almost by definition “noisy”, and insights derived from such data must take into account both the data’s strengths and limitations.  Ironically, this increasingly analytic field needs more than ever a solid qualitative framework to ensure good “sanity checks” are not forgotten.

About the Author

David Johnson (@TurnaroundDavid) is Founder and Managing Partner of Abraxas Group, a boutique advisory firm focused on providing transformational leadership to middle market companies in transition.  Over the course of his career David has served as financial advisor and interim executive to dozens of middle market companies.  David is also a recognized thought leader on the topics of business transformation, change management, interim leadership, restructuring, turnaround, and value creation.  He can be contacted at: david@abraxasgp.com.