Manufacturers survive pandemic through adaptation, now face extreme demand during critical time

In order to survive, adaptation was the name of the game for many businesses through 2020 and the first half of 2021; however, the manufacturing industry is one that was already quite used to adapting to new situations even prior to the pandemic.

“Manufacturers by nature deal with change on a pretty regular basis; it's never status quo,” says Harry Leaver, Executive Director of the Central Michigan Manufacturers Association. “So, unless you're making buggy whips that are becoming obsolete, your business should be adapting to whatever the new markets are and the new norms.”

While the manufacturing industry was certainly not left unscathed by the COVID-19 pandemic, this innate ability to adapt quickly allowed it to come out ahead of where it may have otherwise. For different manufacturers this took on different forms. Some local companies – such as Highland Plastics, Inc., Unified Brands, Inc., Bear Packaging & Supply, Inc., and The Rogers Group – pivoted to produce much-needed PPE and protective gear for companies for a period of time.

“I think that these companies are really good examples of those that were able to be successful in pivoting and maintaining production when everything was in shutdown mode,” says Kati Mora, Vice President of Middle Michigan Development Corporation (MMDC).

For others, adaptation meant growth in the midst of uncertainty. Stepping back, in 2019, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, with the assistance of MMDC, awarded American Mitsuba Corporation a $360,000 Business Development Grant to expand their facility in Mt. Pleasant. Jeff Jacques, American Mitsuba Corporation Plant Manager, says the expansion on the facility was ready to go in January 2020 – just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through the pandemic, American Mitsuba Corporation continued to hire people for this expansion and the plant as a whole.

“Between September of 2020 and current, we’ve hired 52 new people. For the expansion portion of that, between 20-25 people has been the increase,” says Jacques. “I think it was a step in the right direction that this company continued to push through the immediate problem of COVID-19.”

Jacques adds that one of the main reasons American Mitsuba Corporation was able to come out of the pandemic successfully is thanks to the ability of the roughly 270 employees who adapted to the new restrictions and work situations that were required of them. In fact, aside from the state-mandated shutdown between mid-March through mid-May of 2020, the company was able to maintain operations.

“We did not have to shut down due to any outbreak,” he says. “We’re very lucky that the employees of American Mitsuba took the threat of COVID-19 seriously. Their actions, combined with the company policy changes, is what carried us through this difficult time with relatively low impact to the operations of the plant.”

However, now that the worst of the pandemic is – it seems – behind the country, manufacturers are facing a new challenge: extremely high demand as the economy enters a post-pandemic phase.

There are a variety of factors contributing to supply-demand difficulties right now, including employee shortages and bottlenecks in the supply chain. However, Jacques feels a main factor driving demand is that people are simply ready to get out and buy again.

“The manufacturing industry that we’re in is automotive and the item that is really pushing it is the sales volume of new automobiles right now,” he says. “People are ready to buy cars again after last year’s slow-down. They were reluctant to spend the money, especially with unemployment. Now, with that behind us it seems, the new car buyers are out there shopping.”

Leaver adds that through the pandemic people changed their lifestyles, driving demand in some manufacturing industries such as RV and boat manufacturers, including Avalon & Tahoe in Alma.

“A lot of it is because people weren’t able to hop on jets and just go jet-setting away to someplace,” he says. “Now they're looking at things like, 'Hey, I've been doing this with my family, and we're not going to be around a bunch of other people. So, I need to buy an RV, travel in that fashion.' How many people do you know today that are saying, 'I'm not going to go to a hotel because it's not clean; I'm not comfortable with that?’ So a lot of them are going to things like RVs and boats.”

This manufacturing boom is critical as the economy as a whole looks to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

“Manufacturing is our base economy, and the easiest way to explain a base economy job is: if you make it, grow it, or mine it,” explains James McBryde, President and CEO of MMDC. “We don't have a lot of mining in our area. We do have a lot of growing in our area … but mostly it's manufacturing. This is a very heavy manufacturing area.”

Leaver adds, “Everything else - whether it's Central Michigan University, whether it's a diner downtown - they're all dependent on one of those three sectors or all of them. And, a strong manufacturing base determines whether or not we have a strong economy here in the state.”

With this level of interconnectivity, when there’s a local manufacturing boom, it tends to bode well for the community as a whole. It also means that growth in manufacturing provides exponential growth for other local industries. McBryde says every manufacturing job in the community supports at least four to five other jobs.

“Our base economy jobs are the ones that really solidify the region because they just have that potential to bring in the most money and the most jobs,” says Mora.

More jobs in the community means more money to spend and more people in the community means more talent to invest.

“We're looking at bringing in additional people – additional families – who then can open up other types of businesses and provide more variety to what we have,” explains Mora. “It really directly impacts but then I think also indirectly impacts because when you have more funds and more people, you can see that money is being spread throughout the community in a variety of ways. And you can also have more people who are utilizing the resources and the gifts that they have to make the place that they live in a great place for everybody that's here.”