First Up -- Free Investment Advice

April 9, 2009
If you're seeking a good return in tough times, try these ideas out.

In my first column as editor of IndustryWeek, I want to offer you some free investment advice. Obviously, this can't come at a much better time as most of the investment advice you have paid for in the recent past has proven to be pretty dismal. Think of it as my journalistic equivalent of buying a round for the house.

Invest in your people. With approximately a million jobs lost in the manufacturing sector over the past six months, it may be tempting to believe that "be happy you have a job" is the right sentiment to convey to your workforce. But it remains part of your job to help ensure that the compact you have established between employer and employee is included in your continuous-improvement process. Could you use a more skilled workforce? Send a promising employee to a training class at your local community college or invest in some computer-based training. Can't afford raises this year? Find some funding for your employee suggestion process and pay for good ideas. You may not be able to unlock the credit markets but you can work to unlock the talent in your ranks.

Invest in your facilities. More than 20 years ago, a National Research Council panel chided U.S. manufacturers for "neglecting the manufacturing function" and noted that wise investments in advanced manufacturing technology "can improve costs, quality, flexibility and responsiveness...." The government should be doing all it can not only to promote technologies such as wind and solar power that promise new manufacturing jobs, but also to help the businesses that produce machine tools and other technologies that will play a vital role in revitalizing our manufacturing sector. Not every investment in your facility requires a major capital expenditure. Most of us get a sense of an operation soon after we walk through the door. Is the facility clean, organized, well-lit? Are workstations designed for human beings the sizes, shapes and ages of the ones you actually employ? These tweaks to the work environment can have a powerful effect on productivity and morale.

Invest in yourself. As the leader of a company or facility, you bear a lot of responsibility, including a responsibility to take care of yourself mentally and physically. If you haven't had a vacation in the past year, turn off the computer and take one. Read that book you have been meaning to get to, but never quite had the time. Go to a conference, talk to some of your peers, and soak up some new ideas. Is your waistline the one measure showing steady year-to-year gains? It's time to invest in a few salads and a brisk walk with the dog. Come on, you're running a multimillion-dollar facility -- surely you can figure out how to get a half hour of exercise a day.

Invest in the future. If you have kids in college like I do, you may feel you're making all the investment in the next generation you can stand -- and then some. But what about your business? Every enterprise needs fresh ideas, new skills and an infusion of youthful energy. And with Boomers starting to retire in growing numbers, businesses need to ensure that a new generation of leaders will be ready and able to take the reins. Are you planning to hire any interns this summer? Give it a try and you may find that you paid a relative pittance to attract your future chief product designer, systems architect, marketing guru or international sales manager. If you believe that your most important assets walk through the door, invest in a few with a youthful bounce in their step.

Like any other investment choices, these are not without risks, but you wouldn't have got where you are without taking a few risks, including even listening to free advice.

Steve Minter is IW's editor-in-chief. He is based in Cleveland.

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