How prepared are you for a sudden, dramatic decline in demand? Is it even on your radar? Most of us think of demand in terms of waves that slowly rise and ebb, although I've also experienced a sudden drop in demand. So sudden that I began planning for a quick facility shutdown at the same time I was still hiring. I learned a lot from that experience, and now take immediate, aggressive action to understand even slight demand downturns.
Demand cycles, and especially rapid downturns, become even more difficult to understand let alone predict when they are due to unforeseen circumstances. Remember when the Detroit Three auto CEO's committed the faux pas of the year by arriving in Washington, hat in hand, on their corporate jets?
Vilified for their role in the auto-industry meltdown, executives at
Detroit's "Big Three" haven't done the corporate-jet business any
favors either. Their unfortunate decision to take private planes to Washington for
their first senatorial drubbing was a gift to critics of corporate
In one day an unrelated industry was changed. Actually several industries, but the executive aircraft business is the poster child.
Negative publicity makes this downturn different from the last. In
the slump following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, disruptions due to
tougher airport security provided some justification for investing in a
set of wings. In 2007, three-quarters of Fortune 100 companies
disclosed personal use of corporate jets by chief executives, up from
59% in 2004, according to Equilar, an executive-compensation research
firm. "Now, any display of wealth is negatively perceived," says David Strauss, an analyst at UBS.
Poof! In reality, the industry was a bit in decline already, thanks to the trials of the financial markets.
A UBS index that tracks business-jet industry conditions has
plummeted to 13, an all-time low and well below the 50 mark indicating
stability. U.S. takeoffs and landings fell an estimated 19%
year-on-year in October. That is particularly grim for servicing firms
— grounded planes don't need much maintenance — and airstrip
operators. Stocks of manufacturers such as Bombardier and General Dynamics have dropped by between 30% and 40% this year, broadly in line with the S&P 500-stock index.
It gets worse.
But while investors have clearly recognized that the peak is past,
they may still be too optimistic on
the depth and duration of the
downturn.The critical factor is backlogs. Even if new orders slow, the
preceding boom means plane makers have hundreds of deliveries scheduled
over the next few years. But backlogs aren't money in the bank.
In UBS's latest industry survey, 36% of respondents said financing
had dried up, compared with just 6% in September. If financing remains closed for an extended period, order backlogs
will begin to evaporate and more used planes are likely to enter the
market, pressuring prices. In UBS's worst-case scenario, deliveries
fall 41% to 650 planes, excluding very light jets, by 2011 (its base
case forecasts a 25% drop).
And that was before the Detroit Three fiasco. I hate to think about how analysts are now revising their forecasts.
I believe there are valid reasons for corporate aircraft, such as security and the time value of executives. But it is also like a drug and becomes a habit very difficult to kick.
My first experience with a company jet was a little amusing. I was a newbie engineer working for a small division of a large telecom, which owned a flock of jets. Apparently the tax man was a little concerned about whether the aircraft were being used for business purposes, so to make them feel better the company put out a "clarifying memo" saying they can be used for any business purpose that "makes sense." So the next month when I had to fly to a remote factory I called the ultra fine print number on the memo… and voila! A jet was ready and waiting the next day at a nearby airfield. What a great way to visit the factory. Until a week later when my boss explained what "makes sense" really means, what the politics of the letter were, and what the budget impact was. Oh well.
But back to the point of this post. Do you have a sudden, unexpected demand meltdown on your planning horizon? What would you do? I know some automotive suppliers that might want to think about this concept.