August 2003
Ideas to beat the tough times
Even when the business climate chills, a positive attitude goes a long way

After almost 40 years in the printing business, I have enjoyed boom times and weathered tough conditions. No one would trade a good business climate for one where budgets are cut, other communications forms, such as television or radio, become the medium of choice and there appears to be general apathy for print.

We are enduring a prolonged period of incredible challenges in the printing industry and virtually every company is feeling the effects of an overall slowdown.

While many of us have experienced business downturns, the current business climate is unique in that it has lasted for months and may prevail longer than other slow periods in recent memory. Simply put, business is terrible. This is confirmed by paper distributors, as well as products and service suppliers, including equipment manufacturers.

Eventually, the business environment will improve. But even when times get hard, it’s critical to protect the business you have and project a positive attitude to everyone in your company. For example, one of my first bosses told me many times that Arthurs-Jones had always grown and done well during difficult times. As a result of these comments, the sales force was always more focused during slow periods for fear of spoiling an unblemished record. Therefore, managers and owners must create a positive work environment regardless of how difficult business is. If they do not, staff will pick up on the negativity, which will eventually lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: sales reps will be less focused and will work less because “there is no work out there” and if there was we would have to “give it away.”

How do you get through the tough times? Here’s several ideas:
1. Pay even more attention to your best customers because your competitors will be knocking on their doors. Be proactive in bringing new ideas, relevant samples and cost-cutting suggestions such as using a lighter weight stock, using a self-cover for booklets or brochures, cutting back on the use of colour or recommending different types of distribution. Whether these suggestions are used or not, the fact that you came forward with them will be viewed very positively by your customer.

At your next sales meeting, challenge your fellow sales reps to come up with four ideas that can be incorporated into your normal type of work and determine how they could help each of you maintain and even increase your current business. It may also help to get your customers to your plant so they can meet your team and, at the same time, your management can thank the customers for the work and restate your commitment to them.

Use this tight
business environment to make
needed changes
in your operation
2. Increase your advertising and marketing spending in areas where you’ve had some success and where the message will be seen by your customers and competitors. Two terrific results can happen. One, your customer will look favourably on you for raising your profile during difficult times and, two, you may attract some sales or production personnel who like your approach. When everyone is fixated on the negative, find something that’s positive and upbeat. People simply prefer to be associated with those who continually see the bright side of a situation instead of the negative.

3. Make every attempt to take costs out of your business. Use this tight business environment to make needed changes in your operation. It could be personnel or department related, or it might involve hard decisions regarding marginal employees and operations. It’s also an opportunity to analyze expense items. In the most simple terms, remember that you can increase your profit by reducing your expenses. (Please remember that when I talk about taking costs out of a business, I am not suggesting reducing the price of your work. It means running your company more effectively and competitively.)

4. A demanding business environment is a wonderful opportunity to create strong and beneficial partnerships with your suppliers. If your industry is struggling, there is a good chance that suppliers of goods and services are also facing a very challenging environment. Might this be an opportunity to reduce the number of your suppliers by bundling more of your business to fewer companies? Generally, one can expect better pricing on larger volumes rather than spreading it thinly over several smaller ones. This should help make you more competitive because your expenses on a job are reduced and your administrative costs should go down because you are processing fewer invoices.

I believe most managers understand what needs to be done to create opportunities and develop a sound business platform. A challenging business environment necessitates that this be an ongoing process because industry today cannot afford to support marginal employees or departments. Good employees, whether they are in sales, production, manufacturing or finishing, will respect the employer who makes the difficult decisions that negatively affect many in order to ensure jobs for others.
Duncan McGregor was president of the former Arthurs-Jones Inc., a Toronto-based, award-winning commercial printer. He led the $5 million-a-year firm to a five-fold increase in sales. He is now a consultant to the printing industry and can be reached at (416) 487-7666.
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