Some experts say that downtimes should be seen as signposts of opportunity. Management consultant Earl Eisenberg, president of Eisenberg & Associates Inc. in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, says he recently persuaded a manufacturing company with an obviously seasonal schedule to make better use of its downtime. Instead of living off the profit from your high season, he told the company, make another product at cost during the low season so you can at least pay your bills for the rest of the year.
"What it is is taking the blinders off and getting a wider look at your company," Eisenberg says of the benefits of scrutinizing your downtimes. "You specialize in selling to this or that industry? Well, that's dandy--but there are 12 other industries that might buy from you that have different seasonalities."
Van de Putte has followed that strategy, too, actively looking for times during the year when things are slow. "I put my ear to the ground," he says. "What's going on during the time of year when I'm not so busy? I would submit there is something going on year-round--not the same thing, but something."
When Van de Putte took over the company from his parents nearly 17 years ago, the high season stretched from Memorial Day to the Fourth of July, and the briskest business was in U.S. and state flags. Thanks to Van de Putte's efforts to pinpoint other markets, trade shows in the winter, followed by spring and fall conventions and festivals, are now where the company makes its biggest sales. Van de Putte has also added an on-site retail store and expanded his product line to include custom flags.
Ironically, Van de Putte has been so successful at dealing with downtimes that he now has new problems with staffing and inventory. "One ongoing problem is that as we've gotten bigger clients, our rushes get more intense," Van de Putte says. He has been working with his sales staff on developing more efficient ways to assemble inventory during these rushes.
"[Another] problem is taking care of our bread-and-butter business when we're doing a large convention," Van de Putte says. "We've tried a number of strategies. One thing we've done is cross-train and redistribute people, so a seamstress might help with cutting, a cutter with art, and a salesperson with packing. It's helped us balance our workload. We're still playing with it."
Eisenberg suggests you take seasonal concerns into account even when hiring new employees. For example, try to determine if potential workers are flexible enough to be easily cross-trained.
Staffing issues aren't the only thing to take into account when dealing with downtimes. You should also try to negotiate terms with your bankers and suppliers according to your seasonality. If fall and winter are your high seasons, for instance, arrange with your bank to make interest payments plus double principal during those six months and pay interest alone during the rest of the year.