IT'S probably been weeks since anyone has wished you Happy New Year. For most of the industry, the wishing is over, and people are going about the task of making that wish a reality.
Happiness and business success are not synonymous, but for most of us, they are closely correlated. Based on the evidence we are seeing in the first few days of 2011, we appear to be in for that very thing — a happy new year.
This page, written after every other story in this issue has been completed, was composed as Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week was in the process of winding down. The experts — economists, futurists, industry veterans, and a former presidential aide — have now given their presentations. All are pretty much on the same page of the hymnbook — singing a song that vaguely resembles the Hallelujah Chorus.
As you thumb through this issue of Trailer/Body Builders, you will hear others singing the same song. Trailer manufacturers. Truck equipment distributors. Trailer dealers. Component suppliers. Not all in the same key, and some trailing a little behind the others. But all seem happy to sing something other than the funereal dirge that has been at the top of the charts for the past couple of years.
The evidence of upturn runs throughout this month's edition — including our report on rising truck sales and our lead feature stories on the outlook of members of our industry.
Harry Truman, out of disdain for the economic forecasts he had been hearing, asked for a one-armed economist — someone who would not say “on the other hand.” Harry would be happy this year, because economic equivocation is minimal today.
Gone is the talk of a double-dip recession. Yes, we still have economic concerns, particularly with lingering unemployment and the vital signs of the housing market.
Generally, though, the discouraging words being heard now are the logical consequences of strong growth — potential shortages of materials and components, rising commodity prices, and difficulty in finding and retaining labor (especially truck drivers) as the recovery accelerates. Déjà vu all over again.
There's a reason they call it the business cycle. It's almost like the face of a clock. We were at high noon a few years ago. We reached the bottom (six o'clock) in 2009 and are somewhere around eight o'clock right now and moving higher.
While the economy doesn't run like clockwork, there are some rather predictable things that happen as we move through the business cycle. There are also some things that are timeless, regardless of what time it is. For example:
- Customer service
We have been hearing people say that the downturn really made customer service important and that their company made it through the downturn because they really took care of their customers. At the risk of sounding picky, is there ever a point in the business cycle when customer service is not important? Is it ever advantageous to let customer service slide?
- Cutthroat competition
Can we really expect our throats to be safe as business conditions improve? Every company is hungry to make up for the losses suffered over the past few years. That includes the guys who carry knives. We will need to be on our game just as much when the business cycle is at 10 or 1l o'clock as we were when it was at four o'clock and diving towards five.
- A people business
Our industry uses tools and equipment, but human beings are the ones who design, build, sell, and service commercial trucks and trailers. Most companies lost people in the downturn. By the time the business cycle was at 6 o'clock, many companies were operating with just core employees. As conditions improve, what will your company need to do to strengthen the members of its team? Sooner or later the clock will pass 12 once again. When it does, will your team be ready? Will the core members be the same, or will you need to develop new members to play key roles in your organization?
In summary, what did we learn in the downturn? How much of that can be applied to changing conditions? The tough times made us tougher. Can we maintain discipline as conditions improve?
A particular politician has been quoted repeatedly for urging his party not to let a crisis go to waste. That strikes us as sleazy when the crisis is the economic pain of the American people and “not letting it go to waste” means using that pain for political gain. But the overriding idea — taking advantage of difficult situations — is really good advice for all of us.
We have survived some incredibly difficult years. We learned a lot in the downturn. And if we can apply those lessons as conditions improve, we really will have reason to sing hallelujah.
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