John Saunders, president of American Louvered Products, knows the exact date his business began to take a hit from import competition. It was Jan. 1, 1994, the date the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. NAFTA is an agreement that eliminated the majority of tariffs on products traded among the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
“When NAFTA hit, a lot of companies began buying products out of Mexico. And we couldn’t even touch their prices,” he recalled. “Obviously, our business dropped way off. Around that time we engaged with the Southeastern Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (SETAAC) to improve our productivity so we could compete with that market.”
SETAAC, based at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute in Atlanta, helps manufacturers develop and implement turn-around strategies to better compete with imports. American Louvered Products started out in Tampa, Fla., in 1958 as a manufacturer of bi-fold louver doors for the housing market, and it began manufacturing wooden and vinyl plantation shutters in 1995 to diversify its product line.
“At that time, we decided to completely stop manufacturing louvered doors. Not only were the Mexicans building wooden louvered doors, but masonite – an engineered product – began to be used in the industry. The market for wooden louvered doors went completely down the drain,” Saunders said.
Former SETAAC project manager David Bridges conducted an initial review of American Louvered Products and helped the company prepare an application for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Once the company was approved for funding, Bridges developed an adjustment plan that included projects to receive funding support. Typically, companies assisted by the SETAAC program receive assistance in marketing consulting, manufacturing improvements, information systems improvements, employee training and maintenance and quality systems improvements.
Firms that are accepted into the SETAAC program pay for 25 percent of the diagnostic visit and report. The Department of Commerce generally pays half of the cost of project implementation for activities to benefit the company. Private sector consultants submit quotes for implementing the identified projects and are chosen by the company to execute the outlined changes.
American Louvered Products decided to pursue several projects with SETAAC funding, including a plant layout, equipment design, process development and improvement, improved computer information system and Web site design and implementation. Mark Hannah, SETAAC project manager, assisted the company during this phase of the project, which involved development of new manufacturing equipment designed to give the company a competitive edge.
“When we came into the plantation shutter industry, all of the equipment was lightweight. We bought a state-of-the-art piece of equipment, but we were constantly having downtime problems with it and it always needed tweaking and adjusting,” said Saunders. “With the SETAAC funding, we had a company develop an incredible piece of equipment for us that helped automate the manufacturing. There’s nothing in the industry that will even touch it.”
Since the manufacture of shutters is quite labor intensive and labor is where imports have an edge, use of the automated equipment gave American Louvered a tremendous competitive advantage, according to Saunders. He notes that the company – which increased production by 50 percent with the new piece of equipment – now has a handle on foreign competition in this area, as well as a competitive advantage with lead times.
“You have to diversify to compete with foreign imports because they manage to do a very good job with quality and pricing,” Saunders noted. “As automated as we get, stuff still has to be inspected and checked. We’re trying to shorten lead times to the point that foreign producers just can’t compete.”
Saunders is also diversifying with the startup of a sister company called Shutters and Millwork Industries, a finishing division that frames, stains and paints shutters made by American Louvered Products. With unfinished and primed shutters, the company was penetrating approximately 30 percent of the market. With the addition of the new startup, Saunders expects to be able to sell to 100 percent of the market.
Another area where SETAAC’s assistance proved to be helpful was in the design and implementation of a Web site and marketing materials, especially the development of a Web-enabled order placement system. Prior to developing the system, orders were submitted on paper, which then took hours to enter into the company’s computer system. Customers can now enter order entries online and design their own custom shutters with a computer-aided design software system.
“It’s one thing to be able to change with the market when you’re making the money, but it’s hard to keep up with changes when you don’t have the finances,” Saunders said. “SETAAC’s help was extremely valuable in helping us implement these things because they were all necessary for us to do.”
About the Southeastern Trade Adjustment Assistance Center:
The Southeastern Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (SETAAC), based at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute in Atlanta, helps manufacturers develop and implement turn-around strategies to compete better with imports. Last year, SETAAC helped more than 30 companies in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. On average, these companies received $42,000 in matching funds. In the last three years, SETAAC’s clients have increased sales by 26 percent and improved productivity by 28 percent.
About Enterprise Innovation Institute:
The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright