Peter Bigelow

The new year brings unprecedented promise – and challenges.

Happy New Year! I imagine this must be what it felt like in 1933, in a good but highly uncertain way!

There is tremendous opportunity for manufacturers all over the world. Some of that opportunity comes from technology. And our industry is technology: from the initial design through fabrication and assembly to the OEM and ultimately the end-customer. But the opportunity I see is as much about taking advantage of change as anything else.

In many ways the world is at an inflection point the likes of which has not been seen in generations. In fact, the last time the confluence of so many global events created such an environment (and opportunity) for those who astutely timed their thoughts and actions may have been 1933. Back then, the world was reeling from an economic depression that triggered political upheaval all across Europe and North America. In the US a new president, Franklin Roosevelt, took office that March. Roosevelt ran on a platform to reinvigorate the economy, create jobs, and fix various inequities that caused many to lose their savings, their jobs, and their hope. Meanwhile, across the ocean in Germany Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor and promised to restore economic prosperity and pride to all Germans, whose economy was in a shambles in the aftermath of losing World War I. Both Hitler and Roosevelt came to power and promised change. Both implemented policies and programs to rejuvenate their respective countries, and with those changes came opportunity.

Today, European nations – individually and collectively – are experiencing depression as they cope with a sluggish economic environment complete with significant unemployment, exasperated by a flood of immigrants from the war-torn Middle East, all seeking a better, or at least safer, life. Countries are rethinking their involvement in the European Union, their currency of choice, and their future direction, politically and economically. Meanwhile, in the US a new president has been elected, one who promises to make the country “great again” by amping the economy, and through policy and action create jobs and eliminate various inequities to improve the lot of the common man. Yes, change is in the air and whether you like it or not, that change offers opportunity.

Opportunity may come in ways we are not anticipating and, therefore, may miss. While the Western rhetoric seems to be nationalistic – “let’s bring jobs (read: products) home” – it may in fact lead to even greater opportunities to export. While the goal may be to create jobs, the reality may be that there are not enough people for all those new openings. The opportunity we all will be presented with is how to read the various tea leaves, alter our business plans (policy) and put into action our game plan(s) (programs) to maximize the advantage the opportunity presents. The old saying “opportunity knocks, but you must open the door” has never been truer.

And some of the opportunities may include increased demand that turns smaller companies into larger companies than they ever imagined; investment opportunities from companies in countries that need to redeploy their geographic assets; supply chain changes caused by potential – or the fear of potential – tariffs that create merger – or divestiture – opportunities; or customers that were thought lost once again being viable, growing revenue generators. The opportunities are limitless because, for the first time in generations, the stage has been set for unprecedented and rapid structural, policy and economic change on literally a global level.

Opportunity, however, is a double-edged sword. As was painfully learned not quite a century ago, the policies and actions that “rejuvenated” global economies led to a world war that crushed the losing countries, most notably Germany. With opportunity comes responsibility, the world learned the hard way.

For many, that represents a significant dark and scary outlook. Complacency never results in success. But inertia and complacency are real, even though their typical byproducts are failure and ruin. Success is not guaranteed just because someone promises to bring jobs back or cut taxes. The changes taking place – and the opportunities those changes present over the next few years – require nimble, flexible and quick thinking, actions and deeds. As during the Roosevelt years, I imagine programs will come and go at breakneck speed. Investment opportunities and trade relationships will require more than the normal level of discernment to ensure long-term success.

For companies the decision to invest – on what and by how much – will be far more difficult in times of unprecedented change. Ditto as to who to hire and when. And for employees, knowing where to apply, for what job, and when will be equally difficult. Staying calm and focused despite the politicalized emotional roller coaster of “the media” will test even the most dispassionate of us.

Looking forward to a new year, I cannot remember one in my lifetime that has started off so exciting or offered such unprecedented – and unpredictable – opportunities. Equally, I cannot remember working or living in an environment that has appeared to be so wrought with challenges. But challenges are risk that must be managed. Opportunities require thought, flexibility and action. And both being so globally plentiful at the same time truly only happens once in a lifetime!

So Happy New Year! This year’s journey promises to be anything but normal, full of opportunities and scary good!

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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