August 28, 2023
My Saturday morning routine now includes watching a bit of “futball” from the English Premier League. The next day an American football game was broadcast from London as well. It is a great reminder that it is all one big worldwide market now. There was a time when the gear trade was very local; almost every city had one or more “hometown” gear companies. A few national competitors existed for high-volume products like couplings and gear motors, but most of a firm’s orders came from within a 150 mile radius of the shop. In larger cities that radius might drop to 50 miles. The thought of “foreign” competition in say, 1964, was probably limited to Chicago-area gear shops trying to get orders from Pittsburgh-area equipment builders. This “local” base was a carryover from the blacksmith days and the high-maintenance requirements of the steam age. Shops were not unfamiliar with a broken part arriving in a truck with no notice and “having” to figure out a way to fix it or re-make it to be better and stronger. The sudden appearance of competition from overseas caught many gear people flat-footed. We had enough trouble doing metric-to-imperial conversions, and did not anticipate entire markets being dominated by imported goods. The agricultural gearboxes used in irrigation rigs are a prime example. Last I checked, the selling price — including delivery — was less than you would expect to pay for the raw housing casting. Since the “genie” isn’t going back in the bottle, what is a besieged local gear maker to do? The successful ones are doubling down on that inventive, problem-solving ability that originally fueled company growth. Get to know the needs in your market area and don’t give the customers a reason to go elsewhere for equipment that works. It was a strategy that transformed blacksmith shops into industrial powerhouses. It can still work today.