Commentary: Business Advice for Enduring Tough Economic Times

Buffalo, NY – Economically, the past 12 months have been tough; really tough. You've heard it for yourself on WBFO - and across the country, the media's been dominated with tales of foreclosures, the ever lower lows of the stock market, layoffs, plant closures, unemployment and a credit crunch.

For our region, we can say it's been a tough five decades; as Buffalo Niagara's economy shifted, our region's employers have dealt with the impacts of six national recessions and globalization.

By reviewing what Buffalo Niagara's most enduring companies have faced over the past 50 years, we can learn a lot about finding opportunities in today's recession and beyond.

Recently, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, an organization that counts some 2,500 local employers as members, celebrated regional companies that have been in business for 50 or more years. That's no easy feat, and we're grateful to those employers who've gainfully employed our families, friends and neighbors for so long.

How did they do it? How did our enduring employers ride out the ups and downs of the last 50 years? And what can our region's other companies, and not-for-profits, culturals and other institutions learn from their hindsight?

When we dug into these questions, we expected a long list of "how tos", but instead, a short list of four ideas emerged.

First: Don't fear change, adapt to trends, and keep moving and looking forward. Renold was founded by the Welch's Grape Juice family in 1920, and it made a product for the agriculture industry. But as the world changed, so did Renold. When the American steel industry exploded, Renold adapted its product to take advantage of that industry's needs. When the late 70s and early 80s saw tens-of-thousands of American workers face plant closures in places like Buffalo, Youngstown and Pittsburgh, Renold didn't let this destroy its business. The company adapted that product again and today it's used by many industries - from offshore oil and gas drilling, to mass transit subway systems.

We all recognize the value of this kind of innovation. But I think we also recognize its challenges. Innovation can mean turning established business practices on their heads, being open to significant change and the possibility of failure. Innovation demands creative thinkers, fearless leaders and corporate cultures that embrace change.

The second idea from our enduring employers? Maintain good, old-fashioned product quality and customer service. That might seem contradictory to innovation, but without it, our region would lack what might be its most identifiable feature to outsiders: our values.

During the past 90 years, Perry's Ice Cream's production process, trends in packaging and product line and flavors have seen many changes. But Perry's still abides but its founding principle: put enough of the good stuff in the ice cream.

Fisher-Price is still focused on Herm Fisher's 1930 guideline about the company's toys: "Children love toys that appeal to their imagination, do something new, surprising and funny."

The third enduring idea? Hire exceptional people, appreciate their contribution and treat them well. Consider this: Twenty percent of the employees of Merchants Insurance Group have been with the company 20 or more years. And one employee has almost reached a 60-year tenure.

And Millington Lockwood, a company that contended with the Spanish American War, the Great Depression and two world wars, contributes its ability to contend with present day trials to one primary thing: Its hired employees who truly care.

The final enduring idea? Commit to having your business in Buffalo Niagara for the long haul.

A huge additional factor that drives enduring employer commitment, is that companies want to be here. They are committed to Buffalo Niagara, want to make this place work, and strive every day to ensure that continues.

New Era Cap considers the company's deep ties to our region - which go back some 90 years -- an integral part of the company's business. Saperston Real Estate was founded in downtown Buffalo in 1925, and remains there today. The company's founder used to say Boost Buffalo, it's good for all of us,' and the firm's current chairman says that belief is still held by the firm.

Given the storms weathered by our region's employers, it's clear they believe that for our region, as well.

To learn more about them and their commitment to Buffalo Niagara, please check out I'm Andrew Rudnick. Thanks for listening.

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