The current economic climate presents significant challenges for manufacturers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Increasing foreign competition, price pressure from weakened demand, tight capital markets and the rising cost of raw materials have combined to create a particularly competitive landscape. However, forward-thinking manufacturers are turning these challenges into opportunities — and using these challenges as a springboard for operational improvement and increased profitability.

“There are many innovative ideas for growing your manufacturing business,” says Karen Burns, assurance partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP and co-founder of the East Bay Manufacturing Group. Burns speaks about what manufacturers can do to strengthen their business, such as controlling costs and shoring up financials, best practices for hiring and retaining top talent, and the value of networking effectively.

What are some ways a manufacturer can control rising costs?

Reduce market uncertainty. Consider entering into long-term contracts to stabilize price fluctuation for raw materials. Long-term contracts with customers also can mitigate market swings, albeit negotiated pricing may initially result in reduced margins.

Make safety a priority. Accidents can be costly for your business and your employees. Implementing improvements can decrease downtime and increase your yield.
Encourage innovation by empowering and motivating employees to make product and process improvements throughout the organization. This will lead to your business running smoother and motivating employees to stay longer, which reduces the costs associated with training new hires.

Consider near sourcing. You can gain more control over your manufacturing processes and costs by using suppliers closer to your manufacturing facility. You’ll reduce your shipping costs, too.

Additionally, it’s important to find out what your customers value and focus on delivering what matters to them, then trim costs in those areas that customers do not value. Communicating with your customers is critical. Discussing costs and anticipated cost increases will help strengthen your relationship with them. You can then work together to increase and decrease prices as commodities fluctuate.

Why is it critical now for manufacturers to ‘shore up’ their financials?

Banks and financial institutions are slowly loosening their credit requirements. Venture capitalists and private equity groups also are beginning to invest again. Congress has even established programs that encourage lending to small businesses, such as the Small Business Lending Fund and State Small Business Credit Initiative. Having your financial house in order could make or break your opportunity to secure funding.

Further, merger and acquisition activity is on the rise again. While many business owners do not have a plan in place to sell their company, unsolicited offers are becoming more common. Strategic acquisitions by competitors, vertical integrators and those who have had money sitting on the sidelines for too long create the need to be prepared for this possibility. Ensure your financials are ‘auditable’ and that you have the proper internal controls in place to maximize opportunities such as these.

What advice can you give to business owners for hiring and retaining top talent?

Create a culture that values the whole employee. While pay is important, it is not always the most important motivator. Today’s generation of employees wants it all — good pay, advancement and, most of all, the opportunity to do new and exciting work and have fun doing it. A passionate business leader who treats his or her employees like family and gives back to the community will find employees more willing to follow in his or her footsteps.

Reward innovation at all staff levels and recognize employees for their dedication and achievement. Develop a total rewards strategy that includes compensation, benefits, performance and recognition, and career development opportunities. This will attract the best and brightest, which in turn will help to drive your firm’s brand in the market.

The most competitive edge out there can often be a good network. What strategies can you share with manufacturers on networking?

Networking is necessary, yet can often be a daunting task for many business owners. When an owner starts a business, he or she is usually very good at making his or her product and developing enhancements. While marketing is often not his or her forte, a few simple tools and a little bit of practice can make the most awkward networker into a pro.

Practice your elevator pitch. No one knows your business better than you. Successful networkers practice in advance the answer to, ‘What do you do?’ so that it rolls off the tongue effortlessly. Be brief in your answer to enable others to seamlessly introduce you to others at an event.

Attend interesting events that are a part of your sector. Business events are advertised in newspapers, trade groups, local LinkedIn groups and law firm websites. While the number of potential events may seem overwhelming, business owners who distill their calendar to events with relevant topics will remain motivated to network over time. Attend events that attract a number of prospects. Also keep an eye out for centers of influence — those who can refer business to you or enhance the success of your business.

Create a post-networking communication plan. After an event, successful business owners make the most of their new contacts — and their time — by implementing a pre-set follow-up plan. For business prospects, an email requesting an in-person meeting is appropriate, while many folks you meet will suffice with a reach out on LinkedIn. Inviting centers of influence to lunch or coffee is also an excellent investment in time.

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