Monday, September 9, 2013
A Trucker's Perspective -- Why America is in an Economic Rut
Why America Is Losing the Manufacturing and Marketing Battle
A popular movie of a few years back called “The Field of Dreams” had a key line that said, “Build it, they will come." American industry needs to take a hard look at that movie and realize in their case the saying is. “Build it, they will buy it.” The auto industry has lost sight of its roots. Henry Ford is supposed to have said. “They can have any color car they want. As long as it is black!” Ford’s philosophy of building cars was to build them as quickly and cheaply as possible. It is a philosophy that is still working. It is the philosophy of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in America and Mc Donalds
Wal-Mart is expanding around the whole world with that simple philosophy. Why am I talking about Wal-Mart when this article is about the big three? Really it is pretty simple. It is all about competition. All business is about competition and winning is about knowing how to play the game. Wal-Mart has entered the Chinese market and many others. Yet other American companies are on the verge of collapse. As a retired trucker I have delivered goods to both Wal-Mart and some of their chief competitors. There is no comparison between them and say K-Mart. I know this from my experiences. To make my point a couple quick examples will show what I am talking about.
One time delivering to a distribution center for K-Mart in the Detroit area a question arose about the product on my truck. First they felt they may not want the product as they might have too much in stock already. The person in charge sent a runner to check and see if they had the product in stock. Twenty minutes later the runner came back. He told the person in charge they had x number of cases of the product. The person in charge then asked if the product was red or blue. The runner left again and after about thirty minutes came back and said they had blue. Fortunately for me, I had red, and they took my load. That killed the better part of hour.
At a Wal-Mart distribution center it would have been done by radio and maybe took two to three minutes. K-Mart is a union warehouse. Wal-Mart is not a union warehouse. Is it a union problem? I do not think so. It is a management problem. Radios cost, but then again they are cost effective. Wal-Mart could improve in some areas also. I spent my years in the Army working in aerial supply. We supplied by parachute to troops in the field. Making things happen when and how they are supposed to takes team work. Management and labor need to understand they are teammates not competitors. Good managers are into motivation and innovation. They are not into confrontation and elimination.
Getting back on track the problems in the automotive industry from my perspective are mainly a management problem. Management makes the leadership decisions and labor is supposed to follow. There is one small problem with the system. Sometimes people working in the industry cannot see the forest for the trees. The focus tends to be on the problems and not on the solutions.
Before I started hauling for the automotive industry I wondered how the automotive industry could justify selling their products for so much. However by the time I finished hauling automotive parts I wondered how they could sell them so cheap. What changed was my perspective. Originally I was on the outside. After becoming involved with the system, some of the problems were a lot easier to see.
One of the first things I noticed was that Labor had an attitude that Management’s goal was to get rid of them. Or at a minimum cut their paychecks and benefits. They did not see management as leaders trying to compete in a very competitive market. Management was viewed as a threat to their personal security and well being. Management’s attitude seemed to be that labor is a cost to be controlled and eliminated if possible. However without each other nothing gets done and both will become part of the rank and file unemployed.
With the history behind the automotive industry it is easy to understand some of the points of view. Yet in today’s markets the attitudes need to change. Labor will not be the only ones without a job. It will be the whole industry and supporting industries. You can not manage or work for a company that ceases to exist. History shows us plainly that companies that do not learn to compete cease to exist. It is the nature of industry. Just as the livery stables, of the past, ceased to exist. So have many car makers. Studebaker, Packard, Hudson and American Motors are just a few examples that have disappeared in my own life time. Just since I originally worked on this article Pontiac, Plymouth, and Saturn have disappeared as models. Chrysler has survived simply by making deals with foreign manufactures who want to enter the American market. Which means America is still a viable market. The models that disappeared were because of cost cutting measures. They could not keep up with the competition. Even the makers who survived, at some point in the past, have dumped models that either were no longer competitive or did not meet changing market demands. Most people have heard of the Pinto, Vega, Chevette or Maverick just to name a few. Millions of these cars were made but when is the last time you saw one? These last cars were made to meet a market demand created by the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. They fell apart about as fast as Arab hopes of controlling the worlds oil markets.
When the crisis of the moment was past attitudes and markets changed back. The demand for the pony cars and barges, my children’s nickname for cars made in the fifties and sixties, resumed. People adapted to the higher fuel prices after the embargo. American production followed what they perceived market demand to be. When another Energy Crisis hit in the late 90’s the foreign manufacturers changed their product lines. American manufacturers felt it was a glitch and that Americans would pay any price for fuel and continued to slop the market with the gas hogs they produced.
Little did anyone perceive the perfect financial storm brewing just over the horizon. The fact that not one of the major manufacturers understood where the market was headed says a lot about the lack of leadership. Both the American industrial and the financial markets in general missed the boat. To say they were blindsided would be a major understatement. The blinders worn by American automotive management were as effective as the ones worn by horses before the advent of the automobile.
The arrival in Washington, DC on their private jets, with their hands out, underscored the complete oblivion of management to the reality of the situation. The real sad part is that no one seemed to realize that it was too little to late. I have to admit since the original writing some headway has been made by Ford and the other manufacturers. Yet it is survival based, not market leadership based. Dealerships were and still are flooded with inventory they can hardly move. They have no alternatives to offer the buying public. A long and perhaps terminal slump is not only possible it is inevitable.
Why is it inevitable? It is because the manufacturers and the financial institutions failed to realize there is one key ingredient in the financial markets they do not understand. The leadership got sidetracked from the idea of making automobiles. They no longer cared about making money from the manufacturing part of their industry.
The financial arms of the companies were the part of the company generating the income. They were not interested in the adage about keeping the customer happy. They were more interested in keeping them fleeced with extended terms and upside down loans. They failed to understand the little guy. They do not understand what greases the wheels of commerce. It is not big business. It is not the bottom line. It is also not slick advertising. It is demand. What they do not understand is that the little guy when it comes to protecting what he has is very conservative, regardless of how liberal of a society we live in.
When the average little guy feels threatened he is going to hold on to what he has at all costs. So you can proclaim your rosy scenario all you want. Till the little guy feels he has room to breathe he is holding on to what he has. The wheels of commerce will not get greased. Things will slowly grind to a halt. You can talk till your blue in the face. The more you talk the tighter his grip will get. When he sees everybody getting laid off, do not tell him sunny days are just ahead. All anyone can do is wait till the little guy feels secure enough to loosen his grip.
There is one other factor that the big three do not seem to get. The days of “Buy American” are over. Even some communities are buying foreign cars these days. The attitude moving the market is to buy the best value you can get for your dollar. I was always a “Buy American” person. I spent ten years overseas serving this country and was and am proud to be an American. However I also realize I live in a global market place. Some of the best stuff out there is not American. I have purchased two new cars in my lifetime. A 1992 Dodge Colt which had over 200,000 miles on it when I gave it to my niece. It got awesome mileage and was stone dependable. Many friends and family had purchased and bragged on them. So why did I buy a 2008 Honda? For the very same reason I bought the Colt. Good feedback and research that showed 200,000+ was the norm and not the exception. Yet I still consider myself a Ford person and my second car is a Ford. So why didn’t I buy a Ford. The people I know and trust and the research I did told me the longest lasting and most economical, hence the best value, was what I bought. Not necessarily what I wanted. Common sense and value out weighted my loyalty. I might like how I look in a tuxedo and it might make me feel good but, it is not very practical for a work outfit.
So what can be done to save the American automotive industry? Well the status quo definitely is not the answer to the problem. At the start of this article I made a statement of fact. It may have sounded strange but it took working for, or with the automotive industry to say it with all honesty. Before I hauled automotive parts I could not see how they could justify charging so much for their cars. However after hauling parts I could not see how they can sell them so cheap. The next couple paragraphs will give people who are not familiar with the industry a little insight that may help them see what I am trying to say.
My introduction to the automotive industry was hauling brake rotors. It would seem like a very simple part to make. That should be the case but we are dealing with the automotive industry. Therefore nothing is as simple as it should be. My experience started in Danville, Illinois. This is actually the second or third step for the rotor. It depends on how you count steps. The raw materials had to be bought to the facility where I picked up the fresh castings. Step two or three depending how you count handling the raw materials
After several hours of sitting and waiting. It was my turn to back into the loading dock. The parts were loaded on my truck. Once loaded I had about six hours to get the parts to the next plant or step in the process. Which was a heat treatment plant in Lansing, Michigan. At this point I should explain a concept created by American industry which could be amazing if it worked properly all the time. The concept is “Just in Time” delivery. I would not explain it except to understand the solution you need to know what needs to be fixed.
Basically it is a concept that inventory should not sit around on shelves or in storage bins. The item should arrive just in time to be processed or utilized. This is based on the concept that inventory is money. Money not being utilized is money wasted. A fine concept until you start moving almost empty trucks to meet unrealistic deadlines. Suddenly you are using three, four or five trucks to do the job one truck could have done. Each truck used adds to the cost because each one costs for its use. This concept is not limited to the automotive industry unfortunately.
Time to get back on track, upon arrival the parts are unloaded and sent thru a heat treating process which takes several hours. At this point the truck either returns to Danville or moves parts to the next step in processing. To keep me moving they load parts, that have already been processed, onto my truck from a previous delivery. Then I head to Dayton, Ohio to a machining plant. As the point here is to show what happens in the car building process. I will just explain the transportation process. In Dayton the parts are machined. The rotors then go to another plant in central Ohio where the machining process is finished. The next step is to go to a plant where parts are added to the rotors to make them ready for assembly. The process nears an end on arrival at the plant where they are mounted on a hub or axle assembly. Finally they are hauled to another plant. There they are actually built into a hub or axle assembly. The assembled parts are hauled to an auto assembly plant. Finally all the components come together in the form of a finished car. The car is then hauled to a dealership. Each rotor may have one thousand to three thousand miles of travel by the time the process is finished and it reaches a dealership.
Multiply this process by the multitude of parts on a car. It could easily have over a hundred thousand miles on it before the dealer gives you the keys. So what is this whole process about? Well principally it is about busting the unions. The whole process could be done at the final assembly plant. That was how Henry Ford intended it to be. The idea of outsourcing the work was definitely not his idea. How do I know this? From studying the issue. When Ford started his company he gave up a ten per cent interest in his company to a couple brothers who ran a machine shop. For two thousand shares he received seven thousand dollars in parts and three thousand dollars in cash. The brothers who helped him get started were known as the Dodge brothers.
Several years later Ford paid twelve thousand five hundred dollars a share to regain control of that ten percent of his company. Shares he originally gave up for five dollars each. The reason he wanted the control back was that he had built his own machining plant and no longer needed the service of the Dodge brothers. His goal was to cut cost doing everything in house. Of course it is not hard to guess what the Dodge bothers did with their windfall profit. One other point to note is that Ford paid his employees well enough that they would be able to purchase a car of their own. He understood the concept of marketing and what drives it. Something the present leadership has lost sight of.
It is already effecting people outside the automotive industry. The scrap industry has tanked as the demand for steel and aluminum has dried up. Soda pop cans that were recycling for sixty eight cents a pound are now down to twenty cents a pound. Back up to fifty cents at this time. That means the homeless person who takes his bag of cans to turn in and uses the money to buy a five dollar meal at a fast food restaurant is really hurting. Where he had to get seven pounds to eat which is about one hundred and forty cans. Now he has to get twenty five pounds of cans. What makes that worse is that the people who used to pitch their cans are now saving them.
The problem is not all managements fault. Labor, unions in particular, have short comings also. In the course of my life I held two union jobs. One job in construction and the other in trucking, however my goal was to be self employed, so maybe I have a biased point of view. Fortunately I worked for two smaller union companies with good management who operated with the team concept. Most of the people I worked with had a good American work ethic. Unfortunately the ones who didn’t were usually the most active union supporters. At the construction job I watched a young worker give up an almost twenty dollar an hour job over seventy five cents. The union said he should get twenty five cents more and hour. He stood on his principals. I probably would not remember it except I lived near him and saw the suffering his wife and children went through. Everybody on the job liked the kid including the employer. It was early April and the employer told the kid he had a job all season if he wanted it, but the employer failed to pay him an extra twenty five cents and hour for three hours of running a jack hammer. The kid filed a grievance and got his seventy five cents, but he lost the job. The employer’s attitude was that labor was labor and as a laborer it did not matter what you did as long as you did it. About twenty of us with less principals worked continually till early December. Who was right?
Living in close proximity to a foreign car plant and knowing many people who have worked there I understand they have their share of problems also. The foreign companies have an anti labor attitude also. However theirs could better be described as a pro company attitude. It is almost a kamikaze attitude toward winning. The congressman who noted that most of the foreign car companies are in the south and the civil war is still going on by different means was not far off the mark. Actually the foreign makers target economically depressed areas with large labor pools. The foreign companies are still at war with us, we beat them militarily but the war is being continued economically and that is the weapon they have chosen to continue the battle. Divide and conquer is one of the oldest rules of warfare. Goliath did not lose to David because he lacked the ability to defeat him. He lost because he did not appreciate the skills of his enemy. Another way of saying it is, “It is not about the size of the dog in the fight, but about the size of the fight in the dog.”
The fact that foreign car companies are building plants in America proves that American labor is still competitive. They would not build here if it was not helping them make better profits. However their new plants are state of the art and use lots of robotics in jobs that traditionally were held by people. It is this automation of industry that is killing jobs in America. When you combine that with the financial and political incompetence that is creating staggering debt. While offering no solutions to the problems in America it will only get worse before it gets better. The tons of money being spent on unemployment and food stamps could much better be spent on repairing America's infrastructure problems. The U.S. Constitutions charges the Congress with the duties of handling America's finances, defending our nation and providing for the Welfare (upkeep) of the nation. They have failed on all three counts.
If the money being spent on unemployment and food stamps was buying materials to fix things it would create jobs providing those materials and jobs utilizing those materials. As it is being done now, it is simply adding to the national debt. It would still be increasing the national debt, but it would also be adding to the value of America as a nation. Which it is not doing with the present method of doing things. We need a third party that is Constitutionally based and dedicated to making America financially solvent and sound. The definition of insanity is, "Doing something over and over the same way and expecting to get a different result." That is the Democrat and Republican game plan. It is time for a party with a new and functional system of addressing America's problems before the present system collapses. As a history nut and specializing in the Great Depression. Back then the market lost 89% of its value from high to low. That means the bottom today would be about 1560. It also took about 32 months from the high to the low point. We are past the 32 month point, but we certainly are not coming out of the downturn. We are at the edge of an abyss and we can not seem to move away from the edge. If something is not done the bottom will eventually fall out of the market. The present system is only dragging us closer. As more and more people fall off of unemployment they will loose their homes and the drag downward will continue. The present way of doing business is not working.
Economic wars are won by beating your enemy at their own game and taking over the best markets. The absolute best market battlefield in the world is the United States. The proof that it is warfare is the present market situation. If the foreign companies wanted they could buy up the American companies for pennies on the dollar. They do not want them though for two reasons. One is their perception of the problems with the union labor and the other is they would rather put the competition out of business.
So if the American automobile manufacturers want to survive they had better rethink their game. Building cars with longer tailpipes is not the solution. In France a company is building an air powered car that runs seventy miles per hour with a range of one hundred and twenty miles. It uses no fuel. The power source is compressed air. If that compressor is run buy a bank of batteries, which in turn, are charged by solar panels or windmills a true green machine would is possible.
As long as America turns a blind eye to the largest corporations taking business and jobs elsewhere and working people in foreign countries in ways we would not and will not tolerate in America the problem will continue. As long as we have our cheap I pads and I phones, it does not matter if they are made with labor that America would not accept as fair. They should be taxed to make their products cost the same as if they were made here. It could be called a Fair American Trade Tax or as the acronym states, a FAT Tax. Which is what is happening. American business is getting fat at the expense of the people they are pillaging.
All the necessary technology is already available. America could break its dependence on foreign oil and fight global warming at the same time. Of course it will take a complete change in attitude of the entire American automotive industry. They will need to rethink the process from building a better product for the money and at a better price. That will take true leadership and insight and a step away from the status quo. The only question is does America have the will to win the fight. If the present attitudes remain the same maybe we will have a chance to discuss it while we are in the soup lines.
A minor postscript. Pop cans made it back up to over sixty cents a pound for a while. However as the market is hedging and the question of a double dip hangs in the air. The price is back down to the forty three cents per pound level. Guess I will have to get more excercise to fill my bucket and buy dinner. Or if it keeps going we can discuss it in the soup line while waiting for lunch. Hope Congress gets off their hands and do something. There are plenty of things they could do. However that would require a display of common will and common sense and those things do not exist in Washington anymore.