Western New York is no stranger to tough times and challenging business conditions. But several local businesses are finding that the regional circumstances have prepared them well for the current economic recession, and set them up for future growth.
By relying on talent and ingenuity, Western New York companies have learned to survive in a slow-growth region. Now, some are using those attributes to seek new opportunities.
Shrugging off reputations of being slow to react and resistant to change, they are embracing a spirit of innovation and reinvention.
"Nationally, a lot of companies have gone into defense mode. They've decided to hunker down and wait out the recession," said Harold Star, assistant professor of operations management and strategy at the University at Buffalo's School of Management. "But how long do they wait before they hit the panic button?"
Several local companies, though, have had years of practice innovating through hard times.
For Pfannenberg Inc. in Lancaster, innovation has been as simple as implementing lean manufacturing and Six Sigma initiatives.
The company, which designs and builds temperature control systems for electrical units, was able to streamline its operations from top to bottom, increasing productivity and saving tens of thousands of dollars by reducing waste and errors in its manufacturing process. The company grew by 30 percent last year and is on track to do the same in 2009, according to Blaine Witt, the company's senior vice president.
"The economy helped in that our top competitors took it on the chin and we were able to take market share and launch innovative products," said Witt. "The recession forced companies who had been doing business with our competitors for 20 years to look at us. They said, "If you can save me money and make a better widget, I'll listen to you.' "
The company started in 1999 as an American outpost producing and selling technology created at its German global headquarters. Today, it's a $10 million company in its own right, designing products to fill needs specific to North and South America. The company has also branched out into "chiller" refrigeration technology and signaling mechanisms, such as alarms and lighting.
"We innovate in good times and bad. It's what keeps us ahead of the competition," said Witt. "During up years, we conserve resources for down years, and in that way we can keep up with our medium-term strategic plan."
Fortunately for Western New York, there seem to be more and more companies to keep an eye on as we watch for the next big ideas.