Academic journal article Journal of Business and Entrepreneurship

Surviving Industry Decline

Academic journal article Journal of Business and Entrepreneurship

Surviving Industry Decline

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This study explores the response of small firms to industry decline in the furniture supply industry. The industry has experienced a surge of imports and the migration of furniture manufacturing to foreign producers. Small suppliers, unable to move their own production offshore, are particularly vulnerable. In a qualitative study of 17 firms and a follow-up quantitative study of 102 firms, this research examines the firms' primary strategic responses. Supply firms that employed diversification strategies were more likely to survive and even prosper than were those firms that focused on retrenchment and cost reductions. Those firms that diversified also reported greater changes in manufacturing and management systems and in knowledge and skills.

INTRODUCTION

A surge of imports and the migration of furniture manufacturing to foreign producers have had a stark, dramatic impact on the domestic industry, particularly on employment, with more than 75,000 jobs lost between 2000 and 2004. Furniture imports increased from $11 billion in 1998 to $21.3 billion in 2004 and now account for half of U.S. sales. Imports of parts and supplies increased from $85 million in 1996 to almost $3 billion in 2004, leaving domestic suppliers high and dry as their customers move offshore, their sales threatened by foreign rivals (Ucheoma, Buehlmann, & Schuler, 2002). In North Carolina, where the industry has long been an economic mainstay, a report issued by the state Department of Commerce concludes that the industry "is contracting fast with no bottom in sight" and short of decisive action "will soon be history" (Ucheoma et al, 2002, p. 4). Decline such as this is not unique to the furniture industry. Businesses across many sectors are confronting low-cost, high-quality foreign competition that often threatens their survival. A recent study of the machine tool industry observed that foreign producers had "an almost irreversible grip on the U.S. market" (Kalafsky & MacPherson, 2002, p. 356).

Yet even as entire industries struggle, not all firms within the industry fail. While the most visible threat to a domestic industry can be symbolized by containers being unloaded in U.S. ports, the "primary cause" of firm level decline may be found within the firms themselves, with "management that did not recognize and respond" as soon or as effectively as they might have (Weitzel & Jonsson, 1989, p. 93). This study describes responses to furniture industry decline, identifying factors that enable some firms to survive and prosper while others fail. The study profiles small- to medium-sized furniture supply firms and identifies strategies that have helped some survive and grow despite industry-wide decline. It identifies two basic responses to industry decline and outlines performance outcomes that are associated with each.

RESPONSES TO DECLINE

There are important reasons to study how firms respond to decline, particularly when decline involves an entire industry. In a study of the U.S. machine tool industry, Kalafsky and MacPherson (2002) found that the power of low-cost foreign producers had left domestic firms few choices if they wished to survive. Managers facing such a threat have typically responded in one of two ways: (1) exploit their existing product and market domains with a focus on cost savings and efficiency, or (2) explore the development of new products and new markets outside a firm's existing domain (Anand & Singh, 1997). These choices represent conflicting demands, a struggle to balance "profits for today and flexibility to adapt for tomorrow" (Volberda, BadenFuller, & van den Bosch, 2001, p. 159). On the one hand, firms must change, and change requires venturing beyond familiar, reliable routines. On the other, they turn their backs on change and focus on refinement of existing routines, even when the environment outside the firm has shifted ground.

Comparatively few firms are able to maintain a balance between the two (Tushman & O'Reilly, 1996). …

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