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It’s been awhile, but here we go again. Business leaders in the finishing industry are bracing themselves for the fallout of the crisis we all know as COVID-19. Just a couple short months ago, many were consuming their days thinking through aggressive growth plans, determining where to expand and where to invest. Less than 90 days later, many are trying to figure out how to survive the next six months, worried about from where their next order will come and whether accounts receivable will turn into cash soon enough to satisfy the suppliers calling in an effort to be paid. All of this in a matter of months. It’s almost incomprehensible.

While traveling the road ahead may not be easy, it’s not impossible. Many of us lived through the burst of the dot-com bubble, 9/11, the credit crisis and other challenging business times. While surviving each was a different experience from the next, keeping a few ‘truths’ in mind helped me to persevere. Consider these three:

Keep it all in perspective. The aftermath of the dot-com bubble explosion was a tough time for many finishers, many of which had focused significant parts of their businesses around plating and coating parts for technology companies — building server racks, computer enclosures, cable channels and other components that were gobbled up by the telecommunications industry as fast as they could be produced. That market came to an abrupt halt in what seemed to be a matter of weeks. I remember lying awake in bed thinking through the resulting business problems, staring out a window comprised of 12 small panes. In my mind, I started assigning a specific number of panes to the elements of my life based on their importance to me. Family and faith, six panes. Close friends and extended family, three panes. My personal health, three panes. That left one pane for business. In the grand scheme of things, as important as business performance is, it’s still not that important.

It doesn’t matter what happens to you, what matters is what you do about it. I believe I stole this one from a self-help book I read years ago, and some version of it shows up in almost all of them. None of us asked for the COVID-19 crisis. Virtually nobody saw it coming. No matter what business decisions we made individually, nothing we could have done would have prevented the crisis nor its impact on our businesses. But, while none of us can control the general impact of the crisis, we can control how we think about it and react to it. We can lament the impact on the economy and our finishing operation or we can be thankful for the cash we generated during recent prosperity and that it will carry us through the coming months. We can pity ourselves over a decrease in revenue or use the break to foster efficiency projects we should have tackled a year or two ago, or to mentor an up-and-coming team member. Every finisher has a choice to make, either wallow in self-pity and long for the days of 2019 or accept the current reality, find the silver linings and forge ahead.

Everything happens for a reason and that reason benefits me. It’s another stolen phrase, though I forget from whom. Isn’t it interesting how, looking back on challenging times in life, they were often the times of greatest personal learning and growth? One of my favorite examples is how finishers reacted to the End of Life Vehicles Directive and the RoHS Directive promulgated by the European Union more than 15 years ago. Some chose to complain as if the sky was falling and insist there was no way current technology could deliver acceptable coatings performance without the benefits of the constituents being restricted by the directives. Others saw these developments as a challenge and opportunity, and responded by innovating, investing and developing compliant processes that maintained or improved performance. Both groups faced the same reality, but one complained about what was being done to them and the other found ways to turn challenge into benefit. Guess which ones came out ahead.

None of us know for sure what the ensuing months hold for manufacturing and surface finishing. However, whether our industry has simply hit a speed bump or is in for an extended economic contraction, by remembering what’s truly important and focusing not on the cause but the reaction to it and wringing out every challenge to find its benefit, the finisher that puts attitude first will survive every time.

Next month, what can a former Navy SEAL Team Commander teach us about surviving business challenges?

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