How the Great Recession has affected the evolution of MRO support and supply

Coming to you live from the 9th annual Grainger Show in Orlando, FL, it is a pleasure to report that MRO marketing and supply are alive and well. Over 14,000 customers and trade associates of W.W. Grainger, Inc. spent the first half of the week reviewing the wares of several hundred vendors and the services of Grainger itself. Also featured were seminars and round-table discussions on topics of interest to manufacturers and suppliers. Among these were safety, OSHA regulatory issues, MRO inventory management, and utility cost management.

These events are great fun. There is a dazzling array of tools, safety devices, and other products to be handled and understood. There is enough high-tech gear, much of it condition monitoring equipment, to keep any gadgeteer entertained for hours. But there are learning opportunities, too. A gathering of this many manufacturing people and suppliers, sharing in seminars and round-table discussions are bound to produce the kinds of ideas that guys like me can write about and our readers can use to grow their businesses. Here are some thoughts that surfaced for me this week as I hung out with manufacturers, my favorite kind of people:

J. Stanton McGroarty, CMfgE, CMRP, is senior technical editor of Plant Services. He was formerly consulting manager for Strategic Asset Management International (SAMI), where he focused on project management and training for manufacturing, maintenance and reliability engineering. He has more than 30 years of manufacturing and maintenance experience in the automotive, defense, consumer products and process manufacturing industries. He holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in management from Central Michigan University. He can be reached at smcgroarty@putman.net or check out his .

Slow economic periods provide their own kinds of opportunities. There are important elements of MRO that are counter-cyclical to overall business ups and downs. Equipment upgrades and rebuilds can be performed more readily when equipment can be pulled off line and the people who know how to fix it have time they can dedicate to the effort. When things pick up again, it’ll be great to have the increased reliability and capacity that these investments generate. Similarly, getting ahead on regulatory and safety-related work makes sense when crews have some extra availability. Projects that will cut utility bills are also very timely now that tax incentives are in place to encourage them, particularly if the incentives can help keep in-house crews busy. Any kind of investment is painful during slow periods, but American manufacturers are doing it. Grainger revenues have been growing right through the great recession.

Another thing I learned is that broad-based retailing is a uniquely American approach to customer service. US firms are exporting the approach by putting outlets into countries that are developing their own infrastructures. With any luck, delivery of customer-centered product lines into countries with developing industrial markets can help offset the trade imbalance that threatens to develop as we buy their products.

In fact our hosts this week are pioneering even broader-based marketing by providing knowledge-based services built on what they have learned selling in the United States. As US and foreign firms grow, they need various parts of the material management and logistical expertise that a giant industrial supply house has had to learn. MRO materials management, including CMMS interfaces are now offered as training and consulting services. Energy management, including lighting design and installation using today’s low-cost lighting options now are part of their services as well.

What lesson can we take away from the evolution of MRO support and supply during the Great Recession? Maybe it’s that a fierce focus on customer needs, both the ones we are meeting today and others we can discover, is still good business. Maybe it’s also that the relationships we build when we take that approach create a home-court advantage that no single product-based competitor can challenge. If new customers are hard to find, let’s take very good care of the ones we have.

Read Stanton McGroarty's monthly column, Strategic Maintenance.