The other day I had an early flight out of Atlanta and was sitting in my car about to reverse out of the garage. As a bit of an admitted geek, my radio was tuned to an am morning news radio station. For some odd reason, the local Atlanta channels don’t tune in real well within a mile or so radius of my home. We live in a rolling area and I have pretty much attributed this problem to physical geography. I fiddled with the dial and turned it up a notch to 760, which came in loud and clear. My point? AM 760 is WJR radio from Detroit!
Physics and radio technology aside (of which I know about zero), I was pretty happy to be presented with the opportunity to listen to WJR radio for about 3 miles of the trip to the airport. Don’t ask me how this was physically possible, I don’t know. Maybe someone can help me with that. But this radio station defined the “Center of Influence” that was Detroit during my youth. The sports teams of my youth came to life on that station. I still remember Ernie Harwell with his immaculately sweet southern lilt bantering about a Kirk Gibson home run, a Trammell to Whitaker to Evans double play or a Jack Morris fastball. I remember hearing the play by play of Stevie Yzerman carrying his team yet one more time to the Stanley Cup playoffs; Barry Sanders twisting, turning and juking his way to superstardom; or Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars teaming for an NBA championship. The sound of WJR was always on in the background of my family’s home spilling the local and national news of the day.
I was born in the City of Detroit. I was raised a couple of hours north of there in Michigan’s rural thumb. The thumb is, socially if not physically, light years away from the big city, but Detroit was our center of cultural influence. The Detroit that springs to mental image to many folks now-a-days (abandoned, high unemployment, crime ridden) is not the Detroit I was born into and remember. Detroit was an international city that built automobiles and trucks for the entire globe. The Detroit automakers were the envy of the developed world thanks to an innovation by Henry Ford that brought the automobile to the masses and gave rise to high wage manufacturing work. Immigrants spilled into Detroit for manufacturing work and opportunity, creating small burgs and hamlets that resembled their homelands but melded into American culture and society – in fact, helped to shape our culture and society.
This trip down memory lane does have a point. Detroit was the manufacturing capital of the world for a number of decades. Not just the Big 3 car companies themselves, but the suppliers, engineers, designers and product developers that sprang up to compete for and build components and sub-components for the automakers. Much of the economy of the area I grew up in reveled in the status of being the world’s great manufacturing giant. We became complacent with the status quo. We grew up with the expectation that additional education was a nice but not necessary accomplishment because one could earn a solid middle class living in the factories. In fact, the financial paradigm was tilted towards manufacturing work! One could earn more money in the factories than many positions requiring college degrees. I never did work in a factory personally, but my siblings and many of my family, friends and neighbors did indeed choose that route. It is simply what one did. As a state and as business leaders, we grew complacent with success and status and failed to innovate. It is difficult to innovate when you have no one to emulate – and we did not. We scoffed at the “junk” imports that foreigners tried to make and introduce into the global market. For the most part, those initial attempts by foreign auto companies deserved some skepticism. They were not very good. We chuckled under our breath and went about building the best cars in the world. Since trucks and high powered muscle cars were the most profitable segment of the auto industry, most of the product development and marketing dollars went into them. The small car was best left for the “foreigners” to build. Who in their right mind would buy a small, shabby car from a foreign auto company? Why buy a glorified golf cart when you could listen to and feel the rumble of a 396 Super Sport Chevelle? The world must be mad to even consider such a thing.
But as history would show us, the world can be made mad very quickly. Any great business or product can be rendered obsolete by forces outside of their immediate sphere of influence. The oil embargo of the 1970’s was the initial shock that sent our version of the world, and the fortunes of my home state, careening on a difficult path. Unbalanced trade laws, archaic labor rules and outsourcing are providing the final few notes of “Taps” to an industry and keeping the state in turmoil. We have not yet recovered, although by most appearances at least two of the companies have a good shot at becoming profitable again – although incredibly smaller and leaner versions of themselves.
The foreign auto companies, not wanting to compete head to head with muscle cars and trucks, developed small, fuel efficient cars from the get go. They looked to our automakers and emulated what worked and, more importantly, learned from what did not. They were hungry for success, yearning to gain market share in an arena dominated by huge national conglomerates. They were crazy for even attempting to do so. They failed, sometimes miserably, at first. They were small and nimble organizations that focused on efficiency way before Process Engineering became the consultancy de jour. They kept working, adapting, fine-tuning their development and engineering processes until that day when external forces beyond their control (the Oil embargo and fuel rationing) suddenly made their products a viable and desirable product for the consumer.
The trap was set, by no one in particular other than the hand of fate. Detroit would spend the next 30-40 years playing catch up in a game that they mastered in a market that they created. The masters had been overtaken by the student. I know it is easy to see with the benefit of hindsight, but no one (or at least a very few in my home state) saw this coming. The fortunes of Michigan would be forever changed the day that OPEC stopped shipping us oil in October of 1973 in response to the U.S. supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur war. The 20% interest rate cycle of the late 1970’s added even more fuel to the economic situation – but the city and domestic auto industry was already metaphorically burning. I think the same parallel on a broader scale can be seen in our peculiar relationship with Communist China. They are learning what we do well and are improving on what they can in several industries – not just manufacturing.
What is the lesson in all of this? Events that are unforeseeable often play enormous impacts on our fortunes. In a blink, what seems like common sense is lost to a new reality. If organizations do not remain nimble, agile and capable of rapid market corrections, those that are capable of those qualities will dominate the new industry. To those that are managing successful companies now – understand that your competition is studying how you do things and are learning to do it even better than you. They are seeing where you market, how you develop your products and services and the efficiency with which you convey them to your clients or customers. They are scouting what you do well and what they can improve upon. They are preparing to compete with you, in a market you may dominate currently, with improved versions of your own processes! And, if another of those unforeseen events occurs, (think cash crunch, credit markets freezing, etc.) these outsiders will be in a position to become the hunted rather than the hunter.
Even the best organizations with a large market penetration must constantly re-imagine, re-tool and re-think their processes and methods of engagement and be prepared to react when the unforeseen occurs. How many builders and developers were laughed at when they did not hold huge notes on land positions a few years ago? How many were scorned for not loading up on overhead and debt – even though debt was thought to be the magic carpet to affluence and overhead was code speak for “Positioning for future growth – because we will grow forever and ever, amen”? Those organizations that have been at the forefront of energy efficiencies and emerging technologies now hold the upper hand. Where does your company fit into this equation? Are you reacting to the marketplace or are you proactively defining your place in a new one? Discerning the difference between the two isn’t easy – but failing to do so has many negative consequences.
To wrap up – always, always remember and keep it as your organizations guiding influence – the competition is agile, smart, efficient, capable, proactive, always learning from you and hungry. You must behave like the competition – even in markets you may currently dominate.