Having started my career in textiles when I joined Ernst & Young in 1994, I was surprised to learn the incredible advancements and complexities of that industry. It was fascinating to see the number of possibilities when it came to something we take for granted every day: clothing.
Spinning, weaving, finishing – the possibilities seemed endless. The strategies and systems we used to manage that world were leading edge back then. The machinery used on the plant floor to weave was simply amazing to watch. Highly automated. Highly impressive.
I remember meetings that were absolutely mind bending on the rabbit hole of gotchas in a world where you could produce almost anything.
As U.S. Trade policy changed and signs of trouble appeared in the textile industry, many thought the complexity of the product would help them remain competitive. It was unfathomable that somebody else could figure all that stuff out. Plus, the U.S. had such a head start, such a competitive advantage and such an infrastructure – who could touch it? I mean who could even come close?
I witnessed first hand the decimation of our textile industry. It was a sad wake up call for all of us. Then came steel and furniture.
Growing up with a father who was a metallurgist, I also witnessed first hand what happens when your career – your entire field of expertise that you spent your college years and the following decades refining – becomes completely obsolete. I mean it’s not just that you have to find another job: you have to completely reinvent your entire way of life.
I watched my Dad closely in those years, as all sons would. I saw the anger. I saw the defeat. The overwhelming stress. And finally the acceptance and the rebirth. I also saw the friends of his who just gave up. But most of all I remember being stunned at how the world worked so quickly.
Back in 2009, I wrote a story about a fantasyland called Cablantis. I hinted that with the growing barriers and inefficiencies between manufacturers and dealers, our industry was, in essence, teaching the rest of the world how to compete with us.
These newcomers have quite the leg up. From the dealers, they get to learn all the ins and outs of distribution. From the manufacturers, they learn manufacturing. If you’ve ever been overseas, it’s quite shocking to see the full extent of their capabilities.
The worst part for our industry is that newcomers get to see the processes along with all the lessons learned from decades of know-how. And they get to do this before they invest in their companies to become a real player. Similar to you having the formula to Coca-Cola along with a complete map of how to distribute the product (and enormous access to capital), you can get a real opportunity to compete with entrenched players relatively quickly.
We didn’t get those luxuries in the cabinet industry. We paid for all those refinements in process over the decades. We got our degrees, built our companies and invested in all those lessons learned. We had to, because at the time, there was no one to teach us.
I often reflect if cabinets will be next. I mean it’s not like we have a revolutionary industry when it comes to technology. Manufacturers and dealers alike seem to pride themselves on processes built entirely on Excel and paper.
Will another entire ecosystem of dealers and manufacturers, jobs and careers bite the bullet like similar industries before it? Fast-forward five to ten years and just ask yourself this question: Is it possible cabinetry will follow a similar fate as textiles, steel or furniture?
If we don’t clean up these inefficiencies soon, I think it’s a real possibility.
Let us know what you think in the comments!