Call me a geezer from the distant past? It’s true. My MH career started and ended back in the days when our industry was a scattered flock, competing madly for market share with little concern for industry strategy, making profits hand over fist.
That ebullient era came to a crashing halt with the Seventies’ problem. Faced with the industry’s first real crunch (shipments cut in half, dropping to five times what they are today), combined with ongoing regulatory pressure, we united under HUD’s banner. We changed our product’s name to “manufactured housing” (whatever that means) and went on to further difficulties. That gut-wrenching and controversial change solved no problems and made no one happy. The glory days were over and survival days ensued.
True, there were some product improvements, but they piggybacked on some decades of learning curve product improvements and efficiency gains. Our product delivered pretty darned good value for the bucks as early as the Fifties, and never stopped getting better. Consumer Reports did an analysis and could find no watershed product improvements that accompanied the name change or the advent of HUD.
The products of the leading companies, pre and post-Seventies, were rather boring and undifferentiated, as happens in leaderless, price driven industries. Manufactured homes and the mobile homes preceding them were startlingly different from “real houses” but looked as alike as peas in a pod—or a row of cheap tract houses.
Any manufacture that attempted to break the mold was crushed by industry reliance on a narrow range of specialty building materials from large suppliers who dominated the industry and played a key role in making our low priced homes economically viable. Our industry’s lack of vision and strategy earned us a lousy image. I shoulder part of the blame. I was there and should have done better. Shame on us all.
Image credit – FlickrCreativeCommons.
Ah well, that’s ancient history I mention here because it resulted from a lack of industry strategy, which in turn, sprung from a distressing lack of leadership. There were good companies with good leaders at the helm, but no one—company or person—could be said to be the industry leader. The largest producer commanded something like a ten percent market share. The elephants were small, and marched with trunks locked to tails.
Leap forward a few decades to today. We find:
A continuation of steady product improvement
A growing production cost advantage over stick builders
A little more differentiation in product variety and appearance
Ever increasing regulatory dissatisfaction
Ever diminishing financing options
Ever more restrictive zoning
A market one tenth its peak size in units
Three profitable manufacturers dominating the industry
Whoa! Look at that last item! Which of those or any other companies can be said to be the industry’s leader? Each appears to continue marching behind the other, just as those smaller elephants did back in my day. The industry remains, as far as I can see, leaderless.
Back in the Seventies, lacking industry leadership, the Mobile Home Manufacturers Association stepped in to assemble such industry strategy as could be found and put it forward to HUD or whoever. Today we don’t even have that. Our shrunken industry is represented by dueling associations without consensus.
Tony and others have suggested retired veterans like me should speak up—show some spunk. Help set some direction for the industry. Provide the benefit of our experience. I suppose there are plenty of us willing to do what we can. But this poster came from Tony, too:
This struggling industry faces problems that no one should expect to be solved by hewing to voices from the past alone.
That’s why, when I wrote the next to last draft of my recent book, I omitted strategy proposals, even though strategic planning was once my career. My old (older even than me!) boss said, “You can’t stop there! You’ve got to tell ’em how to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in.”
Fair point, and I do love such challenges.
But it was wasted effort. I can’t solve today’s problems. The hole we find ourselves in has gotten awfully deep.
It’s time for a leader to step forward, cut through the chatter and unite this industry behind a viable strategy. It ain’t going to be any of the associations that purport to represent the industry. And it ain’t going to be me.
Any candidates out there?
Yoo who? ##
By Bob Vahsholtz, author of…