By Diane M. Calabrese / Published December 2023
Do you think you face challenges? Try navigating in the 13th century with an astrolabe and a primitive compass. Make the compass one that mariners knew did not point true north, even though their concept of magnetic poles was murky at best. How did they do it? They did it with determination and improvisation.
Just floating is not an option on the sea, nor is it one in business. To keep going, challenges are acknowledged and addressed. Moving along in a viable—perhaps the same, perhaps new—direction is the goal.
Whether an astrolabe or a GPS, a navigational tool gives us a local fix on where we are in the context of all the places we might be going. Tools and approaches must match the time in which we live, commonalities across millennia aside.
Context is everything. “The challenge is to develop the wings of our range of offerings while bearing in mind the global needs of the era in which we live,” says Bruno Ferrarese, co-president of Idrobase Group, which is headquartered in Borgoricco PD, Italy.
“Foremost among these is the need to breathe clean air,” says Ferrarese, “and our company contributes to this ever-relevant issue by eliminating fine dust particles PM2.5 and PM10 [particulate matter 2.5 and 10 microns or less, respectively] right where they are created, thus preventing them from dispersing into the environment.”
The particles may be created in myriad ways. “In fact, we produce misting lines and fog makers suitable for industrial contexts—cement plants, coal-fired power stations, foundries, mines,” explains Ferrarese.
Prevention can go a long way toward conserving time, money, and resources. The path ahead includes anticipating and eliminating potential problems. Ferrarese’s company is fully engaged in such an approach.
“Another fundamental theme for our company is maintenance,” says Ferrarese. “We are trying to shift from the concept of performing maintenance when a problem arises to always maintaining top performance through specific preventive and scheduled maintenance programs.”
What is the nugget description of how that’s done? “Our company offers a comprehensive solution with everything needed to perform maintenance at every stage—sets for scheduled maintenance of high-pressure pumps to be carried out at fixed intervals of 750 working hours using sets of components, special tools, specific consumables, and video tutorials on how technical interventions should be carried out,” explains Ferrarese.
Business is equal parts products (including services) and markets. “Current markets are increasingly fragmented and diversified, which is why we choose to buck the trend and come together, creating a network of Idrobase worldwide,” says Ferrarese.
“We believe the time has come to move from having many customers around the world—our company is present in 92 countries—to building a network in the most important nations for our business,” says Ferrarese. Already established are Idrobase China, Korea, France, and Spain.
Early mariners ventured from land for many reasons. Some were searching for more space or resources. Others were escaping harsh living conditions. Many were just curious.
Yet once it was established that it was possible to go to sea and return (much of the time), seafarers began to find customers. And as they fulfilled customer wants (e.g., for spices, conveyance), they modified their routes and reconfigured their vessels accordingly.
A customer-centric approach to business is a must. It always has been.
Curtis Braber, the owner of BE Power Equipment in Abbottsford, BC, Canada, reminds us that when we spoke with him late in 2022 about how to get ahead of supply chain issues, the movement of products and components was still complex. The difficulties got started with the perturbation that began with a virus in spring 2020.
“Here we are at the end of 2023, and the supply chains have completely normalized,” says Braber. That’s quite a change given the many months’ wait that had to be built into supply chains.
In the good news, there are different challenges. “We’re back to adjusting to quick supply lines,” says Braber.
At the same time there are new issues. “Now we have interest rates to deal with,” says Braber. Higher interest rates affect customers. How much inventory can a customer hold? How quickly can a customer make payment?
The questions are part of what Braber’s company considers as it addresses a fundamental issue: how to re-balance a quick supply chain with customers’ challenges in cost and inflation.
Opportunities are embedded in the challenges, explains Braber. The opportunities come from identifying and going down new paths (much like a seagoer’s course change).
Among the opportunities: Braber is getting suppliers to work with manufacturers. The more reciprocity in understanding there is along each segment of the supply chain, the stronger it becomes.
There’s a very welcome component to the re-equilibration of supply chains. “Now we can get back to the more creative side of business,” said Braber.
Product development was largely on hold or much slowed during the most difficult parts of 2020–2022. Now, innovation—improvement and invention—can once again get the emphasis it deserves.
We assume that even the individuals who took to sea in the earliest dugout vessels evaluated the condition of the water. Breakers, rough currents, etc. all must have encouraged watchful waiting.
There’s a lot of watchful waiting going on right now as business owners try to assess the condition of the economy. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Conference Board (a private entity, Conference-board.org) both provide annual (and sometimes more frequent) evaluations.
The two entities view the prospects for 2024 somewhat differently. In An Update to the Economic Outlook: 2023 to 2025, the CBO makes several projections.
CBO’s projections are fairly optimistic. It sees inflation subsiding by early 2024. In response to somewhat lower inflation, it envisions the Federal Reserve reducing the target range federal funds rate (interest rate financial institutions charge each other for overnight loans) in the first half of 2024. CBO predicts federal funds rate will decrease to 3.6 percent by the fourth quarter of 2025.
CBO also projects a long-term decline in inflation. The decline will be precipitated by a softer labor market and sluggish or dropping home prices.
More unemployment (up to 4.7 percent) is seen by CBO in 2024. Unemployment will not fall to 4.5 percent until the end of 2025. The increase in unemployment is due to the projected slowdown in the overall economy.
In short, the CBO says that economic growth will continue to slow in 2024, as it has been slowing in late 2023, and then pick up by 2025. The increase in growth is predicated on easing of monetary policy.
As we write in early October 2023, there is no certainty regarding the next actions of the Federal Reserve. The currents that businesses will be confronting are still subject to change.
Interestingly, some economists have used the metaphor that the U.S. economy is in uncharted waters. It’s a good one.
The forecast from the Conference Board regarding the U.S. economy aligns with that of the CBO, but it’s a bit more severe when choosing language and taps the metaphor of headwinds. It believes a recession, albeit not long and not deep, is coming. In a significant departure from the CBO, the Conference Board believes inflation will continue to vex the economy.
Seas are never endlessly smooth. Currents change. None of what’s being experienced by businesses as we enter 2024 is new.
Resiliency has always been an essential part of business. When things go awry, find another path.
Mariners in masted ships knew when to take down sails, and they kept their sails in repair. Early on, the value of a smaller, second vessel that could serve as a lifeboat became obvious.
All the elements of seagoing have parallels in business. Heading into a strong wind may speed a company along if the effort succeeds, or it may sink the business. Neglecting the routine and necessary tasks (fixing or replacing sails and rigging) can add to big problems.
About that lifeboat–every business should have a plan and keep updating it. Part of the plan ought to be a way to shift revenue streams if necessary. Customer-centric means responding to what customers want.
Excellent products and service are what customers want. Breakdowns, delays, and poor results cannot be overcome by the most intense digital outreach. A captain who lost a ship in the 15th century had a very difficult time securing funds for another voyage. Outcomes matter.
Some late 13th-century voyagers had very big plans regarding where they would head after passing out of the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar, and they were never heard from again. Voyagers who took things more incrementally, staying close to the shoreline, going island group to island group, fared much better.
Productive paths in challenging times bring some fantastic results, but they are only possible with an awareness of and strategy for dealing with the expected and often surprising crosscurrents.
Not everything is predictable or understood (e.g., magnetic pole reversals). But maneuvering across and around challenges is part of doing business (and seafaring). It is totally exhilarating.
As for excitement, the year 2024 promises not to disappoint.