Opportunities like this for staffing and planning are rare indeed.

There is no doubt that many in the industry are glad 2009 is over. At the EMS companies I’ve spoken with, business trends began improving in the second half. While 2010 may show a slow recovery, it should represent improvement. Human nature what it is, it can be difficult to mentally change gears when one has been in survival mode that long, which inspired this list of “gut check” questions that managers should ask themselves.

Does my team have the resources it takes to do their jobs? Budgets have been tight; teams have been downsized, and it is highly probable that the 2010 budget was planned when business was flat or in decline. As business picks up, workload will increase, and if contingency plans don’t exist for increasing internal resources, your team may start dropping the ball.

Am I appropriately recognizing my best employees? Chances are your corporate culture has been focused on self-sacrifice and a theme of doing more with less for over a year now. As workloads increase and your competitors start hiring, top performers may decide to make a career move if they feel underappreciated. Now is the time to review top performer compensation, overall employee contributions and workload, because if you wait until a strong recovery is in place, corrective action will cost far more than it does now.

Am I making the best hiring decisions? If increasing team size, focus on individual candidate qualifications rather than the companies they have worked for. Outstanding people are looking for work, and some may interview poorly because they’ve never had to look for work before. There also were a lot of people focused on “looking busy or doing face time” rather than producing results, and were likely laid off justifiably. Not surprisingly, their “interview” skills may be quite good. Consider your requirements and look for candidates with the appropriate track record. People who have spent the bulk of their careers in mid-tier EMS companies may have more hands-on experience implementing processes and organizational change than candidates who have done a short stint at a Tier I provider. Ask candidates how they would execute their new responsibilities and choose those with the best understanding of the challenges and ways to address them. Look for track records of dealing with challenges of similar size and scope, and test that knowledge in the interview. Take your time, because you will likely never again have such a good pool of candidates.

Am I capitalizing on the right emerging opportunities? By the time something is recognized as a trend, it is likely winding down and the next big unrecognized trend is in development. Over the short term, cash for aging appliances may drive increases in “smart” appliance demand, but only for companies already serving this market. Energy and defense seem to be exciting industries today, but China is developing a lot of production capacity focused on alternative energy, and defense may be a shrinking market in today’s political environment. Aerospace is another sector with cyclical demand, and passenger traffic isn’t showing the increases likely to spur demand for planes in the near term. Companies already positioned in these sectors may do well, but they may not be the best choices for companies wishing to expand their market focus. Comparatively, medical products that link to data collection or cost control may be a better expansion choice because that should be a long-term growth market. Home health care products and prosthetic devices also may continue to be a growth market given an aging population and more focus on minimization of third-party care provider costs. A weak dollar makes US manufacturing more cost-competitive, so this also may be an opportunity to increase marketing to European customers looking for North American sources across a range of industries. There also may be pockets of growth in the automotive sector in more energy efficient vehicles and accessories/infrastructure designed to support them. Spend time reviewing business targets against the patterns you see developing in the current economy, rather than simply accepting the current business mix as unchangeable or gravitating to the emerging industries based on a follow-the-pack mentality.

Has the recession driven strategic business decisions that need to change? Strategic decisions made in survival mode are often tradeoffs, rather than the best long-term plan. Review the major strategic decisions made in 2009 and determine whether or not a change in business conditions should drive a significant course correction in strategy.

Bonus question: Are you happy in your present position? One challenge of survival mode is that it can be easy to develop resentments and toxic relationships. Sometimes those conflicts disappear as conditions improve, but other times the attitude damage is too significant to change. Recoveries tend to open the door to job change opportunities. An added plus is that improving economic conditions tend to make getting great results in the new job fairly easy. If you dread going into the office, a job change may be both good for you and your current employer.
We’ve finished a year that tested the mettle of everyone in the EMS industry. We are beginning a year that will provide opportunities for the best and brightest to shine. Enjoy the ride!

Susan Mucha is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services. Her column runs bimonthly.

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