Yes, it’s your time. It’s your spotlight. It’s you, all you. The manufacturing arm of an entire industry; come out of the shadows and stand up and take a bow.
I talk to many people in many walks of life. Recently, on one such occasion, I happened to visit with a venture capitalist. This is a man who has been extremely successful in the real estate market. In fact, his reason for approaching me was to ask me if I would consider branching my business into a nearby city that was being inadequately served by the window coverings industry. Since he was a real estate developer, he knew that things were booming in that area. He was visiting with friends in my town and they suggested that he call me. Our discussion went something like this.
“Really, there’s no one selling custom window coverings in our area to speak of,” he said. “Would you consider opening a branch location in my town? I’ll help you find a site and build you a building to your specifications. You could sell the products there and manufacture them at your location here. There are unlimited opportunities. You could easily triple your business.”
“Sir,” I answered. “It’s not a problem to increase my sales. It’s a problem to find the people to manufacture the products if I triple my sales.”
We went on to discuss how our industry works. I told him how most soft coverings were produced by small operations, many working out of their homes and often with only one or two employees at most. Like many other industries ours is facing a coming shortage of skilled people to produce soft treatments. So, it’s not a matter of finding the work, it’s a matter of finding people to produce the work.
“Do you have any idea of the numbers you are talking about?” he asked.
“I’m not sure anyone knows for sure how many workrooms will be operational in five years,” I replied. “I can count by name 10 workrooms that were here when I started business that no longer exist in my local area. Workrooms work under the radar. Often they are known only to those who use them. If anyone has done a study to see where the industry will be in five to 10 years, I’m not aware of it,” I said to him.
“You’re telling me that an entire industry depends upon a manufacturing arm that no one has a handle on?” he replied. He seemed incredulous.
“I think maybe I am saying that,” was my response.
OUR INDUSTRY AS ONE BIG COMPANY
It’s curious how by looking through the eyes of an outsider sometimes you can see things that you never noticed before. “Manufacturing arm of the industry” . . . I had never thought of workrooms in those terms. Knowing the numbers and how those numbers would affect the entire industry hit me as a bit of information that could be vital as well.
“What are other portions of the industry doing to maintain the manufacturing arm?” he asked. It occurred to me that I did not have an answer to that question. He had me thinking in a whole new way. What if the entire window coverings industry could be thought of as one large company?
The engine to drive the company would naturally be the sales division. Without healthy sales no company can survive. In our large pretend company encompassing the entire industry, we have everything we need to sell. We have samples, we have picture books and we have sales training, conferences, vendor shows and innovators and inventors all either helping us sell or developing products to sell. We even have schools of higher education that are turning out graduates to enter the sales force. When we look at total numbers of sales in our industry/company, it’s evident that the sale department is doing a bang up job.
Next, let’s think of suppliers that will supply raw products to our company. We have fabric distributors, notion distributors, batting distributors, foam distributors and more. Whatever it is we need to produce the products sold by our sales division, we have in abundance.
What about equipment for our manufacturing division? We have machines, all kinds of machines. We have sewing machines, cutting machines, air compressors and every kind of hand tool we could possibly need. We have people who are willing to sell us equipment and people who are willing to repair our equipment. In fact, we may even have an over abundance of equipment.
And what about space? Our physical plant where the manufacturing happens. What kind of shape are we in there? We seem to be in excellent shape as most of our manufacturing arm provides its own space, its own heating and cooling and lights and electricity to run the equipment. Those in this division provide their own insurance, upkeep and overhead. So, our pretend company is in pretty good shape in that area. No expense or maintenance worries for us there.
But what about the manufacturing arm itself? How big is it? How is it being replenished? How is it being trained? What is our current level of staffing and what will it be in the long term? How can we in our industry/company plan for the future without knowing the numbers on the manufacturing arm? That is a question that begs for an answer.
TAKEN FOR GRANTED
All successful and healthy companies in any industry require balance. They balance their sales force with their manufacturing division. If their manufacturing arm becomes stretched too thin, then they beef it up to match what the sales division can sell.
In our pretend company, we can’t just run back to the factory floor and count the production people. We can’t look at their employment records and plan for the future based on projections about retirements. We, frankly, have very little useful knowledge about who our production people are, how long they will last or how much they can produce. At best we can only react when they are not doing what they have always done, namely produce in the background, sight unseen. You see, the manufacturing arm in the past has been so reliable and so quiet that our pretend company has taken it for granted.
In our company/industry if we wanted more income, we simply increased sales. If we increased sales, we bought more raw materials to send to the manufacturing arm. However, things are changing. By becoming smaller, the manufacturing arm has begun to come out of the shadows. Our pretend company has to concern itself not only with revving up the front end of the sales engine and letting nature take its course at the back end of productivity, but now has to concern itself with addressing the needs of the manufacturing arm.
In our company/industry it has been delegated to the sales department to cobble together a network to be the manufacturing arm, finding manufacturers and working with them. The raw materials department wasn’t involved. But providers of raw materials are affected, and affected mightily, by this. They seem to be the ones in a central position with manufacturers and salespeople radiating out from them. They also are the ones who can see the big picture first as they look at their numbers.
A hodgepodge of individuals that make up the sales department simply is not in a position to markedly and quickly affect the manufacturing arm. Individual salespeople who are succeeding and are well supplied with their own little segment of the manufacturing arm have no incentive to be committed to strengthening it. Individual salespeople in our company/industry who are not adequately being served by the manufacturing arm, frankly, have only limited places to turn. Often they find themselves in a pickle suddenly when their little manufacturing person retires. While the retirement of their manufacturing person is a foreseeable event, most people don’t think much about it until it is on top of them. They then find themselves in a reactionary position that is too stressful in a personal way to let them be involved in doing something for the industry as a whole. The conclusion is that the sales division is directly affected; it is not the division that can do much about it.
How can our company/industry strengthen the manufacturing arm? That answer is evolving and ongoing as our industry changes. The answer is many faceted. But, here are three things that I would suggest to help strengthen the workroom industry.
1. Education for designers needs to include curriculum that helps them work effectively with a workroom. Imagine a company where no two salespeople were trained alike on the writing of purchase orders or on the technical aspect of the product. Imagine a company that manufactured from work orders that were never alike or even similar. Imagine a company with a manufacturing division that not only had to produce quality products, but produce them with minimal information that was open to interpretation.
Workrooms do not have the base from which to work to accomplish changes in curriculum for higher education. Backing from corporate players, namely the raw materials division in the industry, is needed to accomplish this goal.
2. Workrooms must have access to the same credit and wholesale buying information on wholesale accounts that other larger participants in our industry use. Workrooms work blind in knowing exactly whom we are dealing with. Information that will give us clues as to the retailer’s experience level, or even if the person presenting themselves to us as a qualified wholesale account is actually in the trade or not. As the industry presently operates, small workrooms wouldn’t know what to do with a credit application if they required potential wholesale clients to fill one out.
There is simply no reasonable channel to obtain that information quickly.
3. Workrooms need to be credited for their work. Any published photograph of soft treatments should not only include the name of the designer, but should always include the name of the workroom responsible for that work as well. Having our work published and acknowledged is a big boost to our industry.
There are many other things that could be done to make owning and operating a workroom an attractive choice to young people who might consider entering our industry and help existing workrooms be more productive and profitable. I’d be very interested to hear your ideas. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Meanwhile, little workrooms stand up from that sewing machine and take a bow, after all, an entire industry depends on you.
Mary Ann Plumlee is the owner of a retail and wholesale workroom. Starting with only $50 and a home sewing machine in 1985, her business has expanded to include a showroom, 12 employees and two locations. She firmly believes that in this business only the tough survive. Finding the humor in the everyday life of a “curtainlady” is how she not only has survived, but thrived in this industry. Plumlee is often seen traveling around the country teaching classes and seminars. She is the author of The Adventures of Curtain Lady and has launched a workroom related blog: www.workroomintelligence.com.