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I have been vocal about unfair trade over the past several years. It saddens me to see good North American companies go under or outsource to China and leave their skilled workforce unemployed. Sometimes it’s personal-I hate to see colleagues who struggle financially and wonder where in the ceramic world they will end up. Or, worse still, they are often forced to bail out of ceramics and wind up in some profession where they have to start over. The whole China issue is difficult. The playing field cannot be level to our American companies when China’s labor costs are negligible, energy is subsidized, and environmental protection amounts to environmental destruction.
In the past year, though, I have seen the tide turn a bit. Of course, the recent news that unscrupulous Chinese companies have shipped unsafe products has raised awareness that cheap isn’t always good. (Has your pet gotten sick-or worse-from melamine-laced pet food? Do your kids play with any lead-laden Mattel toys?) I’m not exactly comforted by the fact that Beijing Commerce Ministry spokesman Wang Xinpei recently said, “Our attitude toward the toy problem has always been the same, that the problem is one in a thousand. We’ll still be highly responsible and seriously solve the problem."1
While the reality of Chinese quality might help some companies, I have also run across a couple of great success stories that warm my heart and make me think that there could be hope for the ceramic industry after all.
Changing CourseOne of my favorite clients was faced with drastically declining sales for his products-to the point where his company’s doors would probably have to close within a year or two. Rather than give up, though, he managed to totally reinvent his product line. Instead of producing his traditional commodity products, he elected to use his factory to make a product that was entirely different.
His thought process was simple and turned out to be pure genius. He assessed his company’s skills, raw materials and equipment, and figured out what other items he might make to create a niche product. In his case, he developed a product and marketed it with such skill and success that his revenue and margins grew by substantial amounts in a relatively short time. Also, being at the high end of the market significantly insulated his exposure to the ups and downs of commodity products. Goodbye commodity headaches, hello high end/high margin products-all using the same manufacturing facility, equipment and people.
Another example comes from a small company south of the border. The company only started around 12 years ago, and it is growing by leaps and bounds. Again, it is making products for the upper level of the market, and the products are so unique and artistically beautiful that the biggest problem the company has is figuring out how to produce more. Once again, genius plays a big part. The beauty of the shapes produced, and the absolutely spectacular glazes used, assure that practically anyone who sees the finished products will want to buy them. Yet these articles are produced by very traditional means with simple processing techniques.
In the first example, the company owner realized that his business was radically declining and decided to take action. The owner in the second example had a vision of simple objects that could be compellingly beautiful. In both cases, the companies were able to create new and highly desirable product lines, not through tremendous investment and high technology, but through thoughtful planning and execution of a brilliant strategy.