This blog has covered many different topics over the years. We have talked about everything from managing hospital emergency departments to supply chain risk to baseball. But we have so far ignored hard liquor. That ends today. We are going to talk about bourbon. Corn whiskey has been an industry in the US for a long, long time (remember the Whiskey Rebellion?) but, as Fortune tells it, the industry is incredibly hot right now (The billion-dollar bourbon boom, Feb 6).
In absolute numbers, the bourbon industry’s $8 billion in global sales is relatively modest. (The Coca-Cola company alone has 16 drink brands with annual sales above $1 billion.) What’s extraordinary is the growth—and the fact that bourbon’s popularity appears to have come out of nowhere. According to Euromonitor, domestic whiskey sales have soared by 40% in the past five years—NASCAR-fast numbers in a sector where good growth often means 2% or 3% a year, and a revolution for a spirit whose sales declined almost without a break for 30 years. Things are even better abroad. In 2002, American distillers exported just $376 million in whiskey; by 2013 that number had almost tripled, to $1 billion, according to numbers released this month by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Growth is particularly strong in the so-called super-premium category—that is, the brands that cost about $30 or more, like Maker’s Mark—where sales were up 14.4% in 2012 alone, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. “We have trouble keeping bourbon in stock that’s over $50,” says David Othenin-Girard, a spirits buyer for California’s K&L Wines. “It’s just flying off the shelves.”
Just what is behind the growth is open to speculation. Don Draper knocking back Manhattans on Mad Men helps as does marketing that emphasizes an “authentic” American product. However, there is a problem. Producers cannot simply flip a switch and produce more.
Whiskey is unlike most spirits—or most any consumer good, for that matter—in that production cycles are measured in years, not days or weeks. No matter how efficiently a distillery mills its grain or ferments its mash, a four-year-old bourbon has to sit in a barrel for at least four years. That means production levels are based on projections far into the future. …
“We only have as much [10-year-old bourbon] available as we made 10 years ago,” says Comstock. “We’ll continue to make more, but it won’t help today.”
There has been a lot written recently about the state and future of making stuff in the US. Just in the past month, Strategy & Business has touted new technology and software as a way forward for American manufacturing (America’s Real Manufacturing Advantage, Jan 20) while Steven Rattner, the administration’s former Car Czar, took the New York Times pooh-poohing talk of a revitalized manufacturing base (The Myth of Industrial Rebound, Jan 25). As Rattner sees it, whatever boost there has been in manufacturing has been inconsequential and not beneficial for workers.
But we need to get real about the so-called renaissance, which has in reality been a trickle of jobs, often dependent on huge public subsidies. Most important, in order to compete with China and other low-wage countries, these new jobs offer less in health care, pension and benefits than industrial workers historically received. …
This disturbing trend is particularly pronounced in the automobile industry. When Volkswagen opened a plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2011, the company was hailed for bringing around 2,000 fresh auto jobs to America. Little attention was paid to the fact that the beginning wage for assembly line workers was $14.50 per hour, about half of what traditional, unionized workers employed by General Motors or Ford received.
With benefits added in, those workers cost Volkswagen $27 per hour. Consider, though, that in Germany, the average autoworker earns $67 per hour. In effect, even factoring in future pay increases for the Chattanooga employees, Volkswagen has moved production from a high-wage country (Germany) to a low-wage country (the United States).
This all gets us to a different New York Times on Harley Davidson that describes changes the firm made to save itself (Building a Harley Faster, Jan 28). What is interesting is that Harley’s approach differs fundamentally from either of the approaches above. They are relying on humans over widespread automation and working with their existing, unionized workforce as opposed to hightailing it to a location with cheaper labor. (more…)
The basic premise is that there is a coherent strategy that firms can execute that works well for both its investors and customers while creating desirable, good jobs for its front-line employees. Furthermore, this does not depend on charging customers a premium. Indeed, her focus is on low-cost retail and she discusses several retailers that price quite competitively despite treating their employees quite well. Said another way, the fact that, say, Wal-Mart offers crummy jobs is a choice on its part, not an absolute necessity for being a low-cost player. (more…)
This is the breakdown for a Johnny Rockets burger and some of the numbers might seem out of whack — Why should iceberg (!) lettuce costly nearly five times as much in Africa as New Jersey? The answer is simple: It’s imported. Why import lettuce? Because the local supply chains are simply not sophisticated enough to support the quick service business.
But that quest is straining a supply chain that is short on the refrigerated trucks and warehouses needed to keep patties and vegetable toppings fresh. And in many places, Africans are consuming beef at a faster clip than cattle ranchers can deliver new cows, meaning beef prices keep climbing. That is testing the limits of what the continent’s young urbanites can afford.
“Where does that come from?” sounds like an easy question to answer and at a high level it is. Which car models are produced at which plants is public knowledge so whether your Toyota was built in Kentucky or Alabama is easiest enough to figure out. But if you want to take it to another level — to know where different components came from and where the stuff that goes into the components comes from — is a lot harder. That is the conclusion reached in a blog post on Nautilus (The Secret Life of Everything: Where Your Stuff Comes From, Oct 29). Modern, global supply chains are so far reaching and support so much complexity that transparency (at least to the outside world) is lost.
I’d thought of [supply chains] mostly in terms of delivering Amazon orders and keeping Staples stocked. Those are just endpoints, the final few steps of a waiter carrying a meal on a tray. And what I really didn’t get was that supply chains don’t just carry components and ingredients, but synchronize their movements. Shipping a box of pens to Staples is the obvious part. Coordinating the arrival of barrels, caps, boxes, ink cartridges, and nibs (through which ink flows) at the pen factory—and also metal to the nib factory, oil to the plastics-maker, and so on—is the bulk of what supply chains do, and in the most efficient manner possible, with algorithms optimizing everything from shipping networks to the path of pallets through warehouses, with an eye to what happens when one of these many moving parts goes invariably astray.
The problem then is that unless you pick a real simple product — like a T-shirt — it is pretty much impossible to know where all the components come from and where all the various production steps are executed. NPR’s Planet Money took on this challenge of tracking a T-shirt from cotton field through production and shipping to the disposition of used American clothes in Africa. It’s an eye-opening picture of global supply chains.
I spent this weekend in Miami (OK, Coral Gables) teaching the core Ops class for an executive MBA section. One of the topics we usually cover in the core (especially with execs) is the cash-to-cash cycle. The cash-to-cash cycle (intuitively) measures how long it takes a firm to capture the gain on its investment in inventory. Mathematically, it consists of days of inventory plus days of accounts receivable minus days of accounts payable. Thus when a firm purchases inventory, it takes a while for those goods to sell. It may then need to wait to collect cash from its customers. However, it may get credit from its suppliers so time in inventory may be offset by the time it has to pay its suppliers. Taken together, these measures give an idea of how effectively a firm uses its working capital. It also may suggest where the firm should target improvement. For example, benchmarking might show that its accounts receivable is out of whack with industry norms so that could be a real opportunity to pursue.
Fancy, luxury handbags start off looking like this:
Not exactly the image of exclusivity and sexiness that the likes of Hermes and Longchamp want to project when trying to convince customers to pony up for a bag but leather starts with hides and hides don’t start off in fancy colors.
The image comes from a Wall Street Journal article on Tanneries Haas, an old-school Alsatian tannery (French Tannery in Demand as Source of Top-Notch Leather, Nov 6). The article walks through the production process (quick: name a use for chromium!) but the interesting part of the story is how the industry of supplying high-end hides has changed. Tanneries Haas remains independent but luxury houses are buying up tanneries.
Until just a few years ago, the tanning business was the least glamorous cog in the designer-handbag industry. But recently Tanneries Haas and other French tanneries have found themselves the object of attention from famous luxury labels jockeying for secure sources of top-notch leather. “When they saw a certain number of tanneries disappear, they had to think about protecting their suppliers,” says Jean-Christophe Muller Haas, a sixth-generation French tanner. …
By acquiring suppliers, luxury goods purveyors hope to get more control over raw material costs. Prices of calf hides have soared in recent years due to Europe’s falling veal consumption. Calves are slaughtered primarily as a source of veal and skins are a byproduct. With fewer calves slaughtered to meet shrinking demand for veal, the supply of skins available for luxury leather goods is also diminished.
It takes car companies about three years to design a sedan, and handset makers can churn out a new smartphone in six months. But an IKEA kitchen takes half a decade to create. …
“It’s five years of work into finding ways to engineer cost out of the system, to improve the functionality,” Mr. Agnefjäll said of the company’s “Metod” kitchen, a new model, during an interview at a store in his hometown of Malmo, located on Sweden’s southwest coast.
The Metod kitchen (translated as “Method” in English), is the brainchild of a clutch of designers sitting near IKEA’s headquarters here. The goal is to achieve “democratic design,” products that will work in homes whether they are located in Beijing, Madrid or Topeka.
IKEA—known for minimalist design—packs enormous complexity into a kitchen. Metod consists of 1,100 different components, and distilling them all into a cheap, green and easily shippable package has proved arduous.
As the Swedes tell it, they go through a lot of steps to get the design just right.
So is the Journal right to label IKEA as slow and plodding? (more…)