On November 1, Strategex and Axial brought together a diverse group of private equity investors, family offices, lenders, and advisors in Cleveland for a manufacturing-focused event. Over lunch, the group discussed today’s most prevalent topics in manufacturing, and the direction in which they see the industry heading in the short term. Here are the top-five takeaways from this conversation.
1. An economic contraction is coming, but the short-term outlook is strong.
While the group unanimously agreed the next recession is matter of “When?”, not “If?”, the consensus was that leading indicators are overwhelming positive and the economic expansion — now in its ninth year — is expected to continue through 2019 and potentially 2020. However, acquirers are beginning to place more value on targets which have the ability to weather a downtown. For example, targets with a healthy aftermarket business, which tend to be countercyclical, are increasingly attractive to buyers.
2. The labor supply is the dominant challenge in manufacturing today.
A near-record low unemployment rate, increasing minimum wages, more restrictive immigration policies, and an aversion to manufacturing jobs among younger cohorts are just some of the factors which have resulted in a severe shortage of qualified candidates. Furthermore, the ability to retain productive employees is becoming more difficult as fewer see manufacturing as a viable long-term career. In response, manufacturing firms are investing heavily in the employee experience, flex benefits (tuition reimbursement, gym memberships, paid parental leave, etc.), and workplace culture.
3. Industry 4.0 is on the horizon, but implementation will be slow.
Deal professionals see the advent of “Industry 4.0” as a potential solution to the labor and talent delimma, but the timeline for implementation is unclear. One component of 4.0, the utilization of computerization and robotics, is starting to take hold, but most don’t see a complete overhaul of traditional manufacturing taking place anytime soon.
4. Increasing interest rates are both a threat and an opportunity.
Many manufacturers are experiencing growing pains such as severe backorders, over-utilized facilities and equipment, and obsolete information technology infrastructure. Recent interest rate hikes have deterred some from borrowing to finance capital expenditures and capacity building, putting their ability to sustain growth at risk.
On the other hand, many lenders have seen a spike in originations as borrowers attempt to lock in rates given the expectation they will only increase in the short term. On the private equity front, the increasing aversion to debt has led to an increased demand for growth equity investments.
5. The lack of stability is the new norm, and agility is essential for success.
Above all, markets seek stability, but current socio-economic conditions are anything but stable. Volatility is everywhere, including tariffs, regulations, trade agreements, tax policy, and fluctuations in government spending (particularly infrastructure spending). Those involved in running manufacturing businesses, however, have come to accept volatility as business as usual. Rather than deferring action in hopes of tides turning, and rather than proactively embracing change to get ahead of the curve, managers agree nimble planning and rapid execution is key to succeeding in this new reality.
This article was co-written by Anthony Bahr.