When the coronavirus pandemic took hold, WMEP Manufacturing Solutions quickly shifted gears to provide clients with an array of crucial services aimed at guiding them through a highly challenging economic climate.
“The important perspective is that we met Wisconsin manufacturers where they were, given the situation,” WMEP Vice President of Consulting Services George Bureau said.
WMEP’s efforts to best serve its clients during this troublesome period got a boost through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Under the Act, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal agency, awarded an Emergency Assistance Program grant to WMEP. The EAP funds have been used to assist small and mid-size manufacturers in navigating the challenges stemming from the COVID-19 economic crisis.
The funding allowed WMEP to offer a targeted portfolio of services to clients free of charge. In all, WMEP signed nearly 240 contracts with clients for pandemic-related services.
“We had a good response. This is a big number,” Bureau said. “We typically do 200 to 250 contracts in total in a year.”
In addition, WMEP offered 39 webinars and workshops that attracted 2,300 attendees.
An initial key service, launched shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, focused on increasing cash flow.
“Companies under duress have cash flow issues very quickly,” Bureau said. “As we went into lockdown mode, some manufacturers saw a decline of 25% or more in their business. These companies began chewing through their cash.”
Over the following months, it became apparent that even as manufacturers increased their cash flow, many struggled with forecasting, Bureau noted.
“It’s kind of like budgeting,” he said. “You’ve got this big bill coming up and you have to figure out if you have enough cash to cover so that you don’t miss payroll.”
A series of Economic Crisis/COVID-19 Manufacturer Pulse Surveys conducted at various points throughout the pandemic revealed that most manufacturers reduced discretionary spending and worked hard not to lay off or lose employees.
“They knew the people issue was there and it’s now coming back with a vengeance,” Bureau said.
The surveys also showed that the pandemic affected manufacturers differently.
Although about 10% of WMEP’s clients were performing very well, surveys showed, others experienced declining sales volumes.
This led to the creation of WMEP’s Pivot2Revenue business strategy.
“It was really all about how to maximize sales,” Bureau said. “Coming out of that, we saw that manufacturers needed assistance in defining their customer value proposition and we started to see that lead generation became important. Many companies were reactive and just waited for orders to come in. They didn’t have a good mechanism to identify potential customers.”
Another service, focused on basic ISO Certification, worked to allow manufacturers to preserve their business and, more importantly, expand into new markets.
As manufacturers pushed past the most devastating period of the pandemic, recovery began to take root and opportunities for growth started to arise.
As a result, WMEP Manufacturing Solutions altered the focus of its offerings to services such as Winning the War for Talent.
“There’s this major demographic issue of manufacturers not having enough people and struggling to replace those who are retiring in large numbers,” Bureau said. “That existed in March 2020 when the pandemic began but it basically disappeared because of COVID and the corresponding economic shrinkage that occurred. It’s now starting to reappear very strongly, and the people problem is going to get worse.”
Employee shortages threaten growth plans for many manufacturers.
“More and more manufacturers are getting really busy, and they don’t have enough people to get orders out the door. Some are also seeing their employees picked off by other companies,” Bureau said.
Supply chain issues have also caused issues for the state’s manufacturers.
“Some can’t get the parts or supplies that they need to make their products,” Bureau said. “What WMEP does is help them understand what their risks are and how do they mitigate those risks, possibly through alternate vendors, productivity type tools, Lean Manufacturing initiatives and perhaps completely different sources of supply.”
Another major issue that has gained traction during the latter stages of the pandemic is cybersecurity, which got increased scrutiny after major cyberattacks on the Colonial Pipeline and at meat-producing giant JBS.
“It’s a highly attractive way to hold firms hostage and get money, unfortunately,” Bureau said, while pointing to WMEP’s cybersecurity offerings.
The array of services provided by WMEP Manufacturing Solutions during the pandemic featured many new, as well as revamped, offerings.
“We also pivoted a number of our traditional services so that they could be done in a hybrid model, part virtual and part in person,” Bureau explained. “We varied that based on our clients’ situations. We had some manufacturers that didn’t let in outside groups, and we had others who operated in much the same way that they did before COVID happened.”
As it wraps up is pandemic-related business, WMEP is now pivoting back to its more traditional service offerings as economic conditions have stabilized.
“This certainly wasn’t business as usual,” Bureau said. “We tried to understand what was going on with our clients and how we could best help them navigate this difficult time.”