In a down market, you’ve actually been able to increase Mitsubishi’s market share in the United States over the past couple of years. How have you managed to do that?
When we put our new organization together in late 1999, we went from a standard machine tool distribution type of organization to more of a direct sales outfit. By bringing Mitsubishi closer to its customers, we’ve been able to find out what their true needs are rather than getting them filtered through distributors. So, by eliminating that one step, we’ve been able to get much closer to our customer base. And once you’re closer to the customer, you can better gauge their needs–and be that much quicker in responding to them. Another one of our strong advantages is that we have equipment ready for quick delivery. While we can’t keep all the types of machines that people might need on hand, if we do our marketing research properly, we can have the right equipment on the floor at the right time.
I know that you really work hard to keep your finger on the pulse of this industry, and I’m wondering if you have any reasons to believe the market will be improving soon. What’s your prognosis, doc?
Well, I think the patient’s still pretty ill, but we’re seeing some progress. Over the last three years, gear machinery consumption has been off by a good 70 percent from where it was in the mid-nineties. And what disappeared wasn’t just the large machine buys by the automotive industry, but also the job shops–the people who just buy one machine tool at a time–which had always been pretty healthy before. We’ve seen a very conservative attitude toward purchasing equipment over the last few years, due to the economic recession. And I don’t know if I’m seeing ghosts or hearing things, but based on talking to customers at Gear Expo last October, and the number of inquiries we’re receiving, it seems as though things are starting to pick up and improve.
You sound hopeful, which is encouraging.
I’m a sales guy, so I’m always hopeful. I can’t afford to take a pessimistic attitude about all of this. I guess you could say that my stance right now is one of cautious optimism. People I’ve talked to in the industry feel that things are improving, and that what we need most of all is a little stability in the world environment. Because it’s not just the United States that’s been stuck in these economic doldrums, the whole world has been mired in them. I think that, with the devaluation of the dollar and so forth, the whole world is looking for the United States to get us out of this thing.
As for ourselves, what we’ve tried to do in order to weather this downturn has been to try and maintain a high level of service and support, and we’ve done that primarily by maintaining the right people so that we’re able to respond quickly to our customer’s needs. In fact, whenever someone approaches me offering a new service or something of that nature, I just tell them that I’d much rather keep my people onboard than spring for anything that isn’t absolutely necessary right now. Keeping that core group of experts together will have us well-positioned to take advantage of the recovery, once it begins.
Still, I know that you’ve landed some major contracts recently that have kept you busy.
Yes, very busy. We’re hard at work on the General Motors and DaimlerChrysler programs, and both of them are going extremely well. Equipment installation will begin in the spring, so we’ve got a lot to do between now and then. We’re also looking at inventories for next year right now, so there will be machines that we need to get on order. Again, it’s all about trying to measure the pulse of the industry to make sure that we’ve got the right equipment in stock so that we’ll be able to make quick deliveries.
On a completely different subject, I understand that your wife, Dorien, is a novelist.
That’s right. She’s under contract with Pocket Books to write three novels that are all based in Ireland–sort of a trilogy, since one book leads into the next–so I get to tag along when she’s doing her research, which is always a pleasure. What I’m hoping, though, is that her hard work now will result in a happy retirement for both of us on down the road!
MORE INFORMATION Tom Kelly is president of the Mitsubishi Gear Technology Center, a Wixom, Michigan-based division of the Mitsubishi International Corporation. He can be reached at (248) 669-6136, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the GTC website at www.mitsubishigearcenter.com.