When ProMat, the big biennial material handling show, took place in Chicago last month, it was under the shadow of as deep a recession as anyone in attendance was likely to have known.
Yet the mood at the show, at least as revealed through conversation and observation, was not nearly as gloomy as might have been expected.
It seemed that exhibitors were finding that the search for savings by businesses in a down economy can lead to investments that improve productivity or pay off in some other way. One told me, "The market is not dead." Projects are going forward, he said—if they have a strong business justification—but were taking longer to win final approval. Another exhibitor told me of a conversation he had with an attendee—a potential customer who was actively looking for appropriate technology for his distribution operations. The goal, the customer said, was "to plug all the gaps to profit."
In short, the logistics and material handling professionals at the show were buying products that would help them cut costs or boost operating efficiency.
That's in line with the views offered during a seminar DC VELOCITY held at its booth (and now available as a webcast at www.dcvelocity.com/webcasts) on "How to Thrive in an Economic Downturn." Two association leaders, Rick Blasgen, CEO of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, and Mike Mikitka, interim executive director of the Warehousing Education and Research Council, both described steps their members were taking to ensure their companies would not only get through the current turmoil, but make something of it. They were joined by John White, executive vice president of Fortna, a material handling and supply chain integrator and consultant, who argued that companies should do more than cope, but shift thinking in ways that made something good out of the bad times.
All three agreed that focusing on employees was crucial. Technology—ProMat's raison d'être—is equally crucial, as are good processes and good customer relationships.
On the investment side, they stressed the need to develop good business cases for any proposed investments. They also offered some practical operational ideas. But the overarching message was that it is not a time to dig deeper into a trench, but to take active steps to improve business.
There was no naïveté in all this. The executives of one company told me they suspect that revenues in the material handling industry will be down 10 percent—possibly as much as 20 percent—this year. But they also see opportunity for those businesses that are agile enough and smart enough to see it through.