As I write the last Upfront column of the year on the eve of Thanksgiving, I have been thinking about the things in life for which I am grateful. This is always worth doing, and more so when the going gets tough. Indeed, 2009 has been year filled with upheavals that riveted our attention.
I'm sure I am not alone in this; the past year and a half probably has been the most arduous period that many of us have ever faced. As we've endeavored to weather the storm, we have been compelled to adapt to an uncertain business climate and to take action if we want to survive. Complacency wasn't an option this year and, somehow, I don't think it will ever be again.
It is natural to wish that events might have unfolded differently, but I'd rather focus my time and energy on more productive tasks. Eternal optimist that I am, I also think there is a silver lining here. The economic challenge has been the blow we needed to get our attention. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of collateral damage too. But all these things represent life's lessons that I have come to appreciate. The current unpleasantness also may turn out to be the catalyst for the recovery of the coin machine business.
It was "back to basics" for most of us in 2009, as we had to decide what was absolutely necessary and what we could live without. We discovered we had the fortitude to work harder and manage our time more efficiently. We became skilled at reducing our overhead through more productive use of our resources. We revisited the value of our business partners, both inside (employees) and outside (suppliers) our organizations. We worked harder to present ourselves as professional service providers, emphasizing customer satisfaction.
As an industry, we began to pull together as we regained our respect for the old adage that there is strength in numbers – and we've endeavored to concentrate that strength by consolidating trade shows and trade associations. Together, we've sharpened our recognition that perception is reality in business, and we've continued to look for ways to cast a more uniform and realistic light on an industry too often misunderstood by government and the general public.
Inevitably, the merchandise vending business will continue to grapple with shifts in manufacturing employment and threats of new taxation, regulation and employer mandates. The steadily closing vise of legal and regulatory constraints will squeeze the neighborhood tavern into an ever-narrower niche, eroding the market for the street operator. If we don't fight back on all fronts, we may become the victims of over-zealous politicians looking to score debating-points at the expense of poorly understood segments of the economy. Whether we are blamed for childhood obesity or adolescent delinquency, we confront an uphill battle in an environment that (in my humble opinion) could benefit from a healthy dose of humanity, substance and equity.
But what I also know for sure is that there still is a need for refreshment away from home, and a desire by consumers for convenient access to a wide selection of products, wherever they may be. And there is a large (and probably growing) market for out-of-home, pay-per-use recreation and for alternate sources of high-quality entertainment. Imaginative new technology and sophisticated promotional approaches will allow us to learn more about our customers, devote more attention to spending patterns and provide better solutions to meeting patrons' needs. What also is certain is that, as these changes reshape our industry, we will attract a larger audience of consumers and players. Because complacency has not been an option for us this year, we're ready to act.
But while I'm thankful for the alarm-bells that have roused us to take a new look at what we're doing, this optimist still has her concerns. Our industry is ready, yes; but we can't do it alone. I am troubled by the evident unwillingness of economic sectors with much higher profiles than ours to rethink their overall approach. It seems to me that in the midst of trying to minimize costs by rationalizing and refining everything to perfection, management has fallen into a stale routine that has paralyzed too many of today's organizations.
Everyone has a business plan and a mission statement; everyone focuses on core competencies, and strives to stay ahead of the curve and outside the box. But that posture at present seems to entail an unwillingness to invest in maintaining (let alone establishing) fruitful long-term relationships with key market segments like (yes!) vending, amusements and music.
Many firms seem to have lost sight of the famous Law, attributed to publishing pioneer Arthur H. (Red) Motley: Selling drives the enterprise – always has, always will. The sooner current management theory returns to that essential truth, the better it will be for all of us.