I talk to clients in the machining business almost every day. I often ask the perfunctory question, “How’s business?” and I usually get the perfunctory answer back – “It’s steady.” Then I chuckle to myself. I’ve never known business to be “steady.” It’s always bouncing one way or the other. The national economic statistics may show little change from month to month because the ups and downs of various segments will negate one another, but trends are always shifting. Nothing is constant. One of the things that keeps me continually fascinated with business and keeps me up at night is the opening and closing of windows of opportunity.
A small business lives and dies by identifying those mysterious windows of opportunity, devising plans to take advantage of them and then having the courage to act before the imagined windows shut with a chilling thud.
Sam Zell, the Chicago real estate magnate, just came out with his autobiography. Through the years he has been uncanny in seeing the business opportunities opening up before his competitors and anticipating the trends that might devastate the value of his properties. Zell has bought and sold a hundred malls. Now he is hating Amazon.
In case you might not have noticed, Amazon and Internet retailing have absolutely devastated medium-sized shopping centers and malls. Department store companies are reeling. Retailing icons like JCPenney and Macy’s are considering bankruptcy.
On the other hand, restaurants and take-out joints, food trucks and martini bars are thriving. People are consuming food and experiences while tending to pass on buying more stuff. Zell may not like it but he gets it, and he is trying to repurpose malls into health care facilities and gyms.
Lacrosse is now the latest hot sport in the U.S., golf is in the toilet, and Mark Fields was just canned as the head of Ford despite the immense profits of the F-150 truck. Evidently Bill Ford and family felt he did not move rapidly enough into autonomous cars and electric vehicles. Opening and closing windows, depending on your point of view.
Business is about being blindsided. Volcanoes seldom erupt but they are constantly moving closer or further from a blowout.
I read today that the white sneaker boom has recently deflated. Honestly, I didn’t even know that white sneakers have been hot for the last five years. The Adidas franchise on Stan Smith tennis shoes has gone cold, folks. I hate to date myself again, but I was a Stan Smith fan before he won Wimbledon in 1972 and teamed with Bob Lutz to become the best tennis doubles team in the world. To most folks today, Stan Smiths are just white tennis shoes worn by women trying to be trendy. Stan had a terrific serve up the middle, by the way. One of the big questions for every business person is should you search for the opening windows or just be content to play your everyday game, hoping your day will eventually prevail over time. Do you wear your Stan Smiths that you bought in 1972 until they wear out and then buy another pair? Why not? Well, you might very well go broke in those 14 years that everybody forgot about Sam Smiths except Adidas and old Stan living down at Hilton Head.
In the screw machine world, perhaps you ran those good old #2 Brown and Sharpes while the rest of the world bought Citizens. Maybe those Brownies will finally have their day again in 2019. Maybe their bronze gears will last until the machine is bronzed.
Younger people may be better at identifying opening windows of opportunity, but their lack of experience and perspective can also work against them. Businesses that have a dialogue between young and old participants may have a better chance to distinguish between promise and illusion. But for gear heads who believe business can actually be steady, life is always going to be as hard as stainless steel.