Lucy and the Aluminum Football

World's Favorite Sport
Creative Commons License photo credit: vramak

Lately, there has been a lot of talk in the news and around the Flathead Valley about the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) offering a four year power supply deal to Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC).

The deal is subject to environmental review and other what-ifs, so it isn’t a done deal quite yet.

Given the economic struggles facing Columbia Falls, any news of new jobs is good news. Really good news, in fact.

The topic of CFAC concerns me – it always has. Folks who have lived in Columbia Falls far longer than I know the history of CFAC first hand. To summarize for everyone else: It opens. It lays off / closes. It changes hands. It opens. It lays off / closes. And so on.

Again, Lucy pulls it away
CFAC has at times been our employment Lucy (from the “Peanuts” comic strip). Just as Charlie Brown approaches to kick the football, Lucy pulls it away and Charlie goes flying through the air, screaming and lands flat on his back. Imagine having that done to your career and family -  several times.

No matter how good things are when CFAC is rocking, a shutdown ripples through the financial well-being of our fair town’s families and the businesses that serve them. The impact of the historical ups-and-downs of CFAC on those families is unimaginable.

To their credit, CFAC’s troubles haven’t always been bad news for the valley.

In at least one case, their troubles have generated substantial benefits. Several years back, CFAC paid their people to do what amounted to volunteer work for a number of groups that couldn’t have otherwise afforded the labor. Many organizations benefited big time from the hard work their employees provided back then – and continue to benefit from the work done back then.

Don’t be a commodity
It isn’t as if these troubles were created on purpose (feel free to argue about that in the comments).

While it may not have started that way in the 1950s, the CFAC of modern times is incredibly sensitive to the whims of commodity prices. Many businesses deal with commodity prices somehow affecting some part of their business. CFAC’s business has it as part of their raw materials supply, energy supply and their finished product. As things sit today, it’s a tough, tough business they’re in.

Imagine having someone else setting the prices of every major component of your business. Now imagine that the ingots you ship are not substantially different (speaking very generally here) from those shipped by a Chinese firm using labor that works for $10 a day, ore that’s mined locally by workers paid similarly, and so on.

Advice to everyone else – do whatever you can to avoid getting yourself into a commodity market. If you’re in one, work on your business model to get out of it.

In fact, that’s my advice to CFAC, though they didn’t ask. Let’s call it a wish for the betterment of Columbia Falls and the entire valley.

The Whole Valley
Wait a minute…the whole valley? Absolutely. It’s about airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars. It’s about cafes and catering. It’s about grocery and clothing stores. It’s about car dealers and construction work. It’s about the schools that get property taxes from an active thriving business instead of the waiver-level taxes of a dead one.

My wish is that in four years no one cares what electricity costs CFAC. Not because they are gone, but because whatever they sell has so much value that people will pay whatever it takes to get it. It worries me deeply that in four years we’ll be right back where we are now.

What I’d like to see is for CFAC to add a ton of value to the aluminum they produce, *before* it hits the rails. I’m told CFAC had some of the best millwrights anywhere who could create “anything”.

I wonder
I wonder what CFAC could make that would allow them to sell a product that doesn’t get sold on commodity markets based on someone else’s price control. I wonder what they can manufacture with the skills and backgrounds of the people who worked there for the last 20-30-40 years.

I wonder what would happen to a community manufacturing valuable products for today’s economy, rather than commodities from my grandfather’s economy.

I wonder what would happen if Charlie got to kick the ball.

A business problem, not a water problem

Photo credit: Michael Hyatt

When book publisher Michael Hyatt posted this image saying “When you read this at Panera, you know your city has a water problem”, it struck me as a business problem.

Sure, the city might have a problem, but that shouldn’t be your customers’ problem.

Every day, we must adapt to the cards we’re dealt.

Rather than “We are not serving tap water, sodas or brewed tea today” and taking what might be perceived as a political shot at the city (the same one who does their next restaurant inspection?), a customer-centered management team could have called Culligan (et al) to get all the restaurant-approved water they’d need to provide glasses of water and brewed tea.

If you’re Culligan, there’s a win-win there.

Perhaps you can’t easily and quickly alter the water supply for a soda dispensing system, but that still doesn’t require a sign.

A quick look at last week’s sales totals from the register would have told them that they sell 430 sodas per day on average and run over to Costco or Sam’s (or called their normal supplier) for a canned/bottled supply that would span the gap for them.

The next work day, they could consult with their soda mix supplier and explain the situation further, ask for advice on water supply adaptation and then contact their plumber to arrange for a way to feed the third-party water into their soda system. Or they simply could have adapted using pre-mix, though that would probably be too much of an interference to the restaurant’s workflow.

Instead, they chose to sell no soda and no tea (both high profit margin items) and take a shot at the city.

Maybe the city needed a smack, but the place to do that is at the city offices, at a council meeting and worst case, in the local press.

Using your customers as pawns in that game makes for a losing battle, especially when they are standing at your front door with their wallets and purses open.

PS: Interesting that coffee wasn’t mentioned on that sign. Might be because many places use high-tech water filtration systems for their coffee water supply lines. I wonder if a non-franchise restaurant would have reacted the same way.

The President of You


Creative Commons License photo credit: dev null

Been talking about this for a good while, glad to find someone else who agrees.

There is one President who matters to your business: The President of you.

What you do today, tomorrow, the next day and every day to improve your products, services, customer support, and to continue to provide better value to your customers makes a ton more difference in the results seen in your business than anything done by anyone else, regardless of party, regardless of office.

Quit fussing over elections and political issues. If you want to make a difference in your business, get to work.

PS: Happy Veterans Day. Thank you to Veterans for all you did. Thank you to active duty personnel for all you’ve done and continue to do.

Social media mistakes small business owners should avoid

junior
Creative Commons License photo credit: notmpres

Today we’re going to talk about three mistakes that I advise small business owners not to make when getting into social media.

#1 – Don’t be a firehose

One of the easiest things to do – and most important to avoid – is the temptation to flood the place with automated messages.

For example, there are tools out there (like twitterfeed.com) that allow you to automatically post links to your blog to Twitter. You can do the same with Friendfeed and Facebook.

Using tools like this to send your blog posts to Twitter or Facebook is fine – unless that’s the only thing you post.

If you’re the Flathead Beacon, CNN or The New York Times, you can get away with that – even though we’d still like to see more interaction.

As a small business owner, your job is not to be a firehose.

Interaction is better. Note the first word in “social media”. It’s social.

It’s not you standing on a corner preaching to anyone who will listen – while you listen to no one and interact with no one.

#2 – Don’t treat me like it’s our honeymoon when it’s really our first date

One of the most common mistakes I see in Twitter is the “Hey, thanks for following, want to buy my product?” direct message (in Twitter lingo, a DM).

Look at it this way. If we meet at a Rotary meeting for the very first time, the first thing you say face to face after we are introduced and are seated across from each other is NOT going to be “Hey, great to meet you, want to buy my product?”

It’s the same thing. Don’t do it.

#3 – Don’t assume that everyone wants to listen to your politics or the F bomb all day

They don’t. Just because the environment is a bit casual on many of these sites, don’t assume for a minute that you are sitting in a bar in a strange town where no one will ever see you again.

Would you have those conversations across the counter with a customer? Would you have them out loud with a friend in your crowded business?

Didn’t think so. Twitter, Facebook and MySpace are also not the place to have them either.

Always remember that you’re taking the time to use these tools in order to better connect with the people who are interested in what your business does, or what you know.

EXCEPT…when it supports the nature of your business. Yes, Ian’s Catholic goods store comes to mind as the easy example.

That may seem a bit cheesy, but the fact remains that if your politics have no business out loud at the counter of your store, then they don’t have any business representing you on Twitter and Facebook (etc).

Finally, watch your online mouth just like you would your real one. It’s still a business conversation.

Watering down your message

Apocalyptic Elegance
Creative Commons License photo credit: NyYankee

While grumbling to myself about the effectiveness of the “Making CPSIA testing economics reasonable for small business” population (my name for a number of “us”, not a name this non-group group has adopted), I continue to be disappointed in the actions being taken by Congress to repair the Act.

With that, I think it’s a good time to announce that the political posts here will cease.

I’ve created another blog that is designed specifically to address political and regulatory issues faced by small business.

Why?

I simply don’t want to dilute the message that Business is Personal has stuck to for the last 4 years (yeah, I forgot to mention we had a birthday – what the heck am I thinking?) and frankly, I’ve done exactly that over the last several months.

While it has been a positive for the blog’s traffic, it isn’t the reason why BIP exists. I thought briefly that maybe it should be, as it resonated with a lot of folks (blog traffic has tripled since I started talking about CPSIA).

Despite that, I’m taking that message elsewhere. It’s off topic, mostly.

When I have that “elsewhere” ready to unveil, I’ll let you know. It won’t be too long.

The force is strong with this Congress

For decades, I have avoided getting involved in politics mostly because it has a way of seriously annoying me.

As I hope you’ve noticed, I’ve also avoided getting politic-y here at Business is Personal – maybe with the exception of discussions regarding the CPSIA.

Despite my best efforts, Congress is working overtime to pull me into their world.

And then this morning, I’m talking to a prospect who asks “Do you get involved in politics much?” Hooboy:)

Never fear, however. BIP is not here to be political. I will avoid it at every possible occasion.

Regulation is necessary

Regulation is necessary and anarchy is a pretty bad alternative. The problem is that Congress seems to be working overtime to destroy small businesses, intentional or otherwise.

Those that deserve it, so be it. Most do not, IMO.

It seems fairly obvious that we can legislate the loss of jobs a whole lot easier and faster than we can create them via legislation.

Almost 30 years ago, the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) was put in place to protect small business from a “substantial impact” from new rules put in place by agencies as a result of new Federal laws.

The name sounds all nice and cuddly, doesn’t it? “Regulatory Flexibility Act” Awwww:)

The law requires an analysis of any new agency rule to make sure that it wont significantly harm a substantial number of small businesses. Agency rules implement the enforcement of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the President.

Problem: New rules can avoid the analysis if the enforcing agency’s head “certifies” (by publishing a statement in the Federal Register) that rule won’t adversely affect small businesses.

For example, the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) recently entered official comments into the Federal Register regarding several important CPSIA issues.

One of the things in that Federal Register entry is the RFA certification statement that says the CPSIA “doesn’t impact small business”. In that link, see page 10479, section G where they make all things right with the small business world by simply saying small businesses (even those “evil mommybloggers” who own businesses<g>) won’t be affected.

My Kingdom for Safe, Modern Food!

A new challenge for some small businesses might be HR875, which has an easy-to-like name: the “Food Safety Modernization Act“.

Not even Mr. Peanut would try to convince you that we don’t have food safety work to do.

Like the CPSIA, this law appears to target large food processing facilities, corporate farms, imported foods and so on. After all, you don’t hear about thousands being poisoned from foods purchased at the local farmer’s market.

Just like the CPSIA doesn’t differentiate between moms who sew outfits for my granddaughter and big Chinese factories that import a few thousand container loads of mass-market clothes per year, the FSMA (HR875) doesn’t differentiate between Tyson, Conagra and the guy who owns 9 chickens so he can sell eggs once a week at the local farmer’s market.

Not even the USDA-certified organic farmer escapes the FSMA’s reach.

All your chickens are belong to us

No, that is not a typo.

Finally, there is the new animal radio ID labeling regulation currently National Animal Identification System that is winding through Congressional committees.

Yes, I regularly remind you to measure everything, so I can see the good coming from this.

Except…

The problem with the NAIS, as with the CPSIA and the FSMA, is in the cost of implementation when you compare a large corporate farm to someone who organically (or not) maintains even one head of livestock or 9 chickens.

The point of all of this? You need your trade association. If you don’t have one, start one. If yours stinks, get involved and make it better.

No, it won’t be easy, though fixing an org is easier than starting one.

Working as a Wal-Mart greeter is easy. Pushing the Staples Easy button is easy. If you wanted easy, you wouldn’t have started / bought a business.

These laws can just as easily impact your employer as they can you as a self-employed person, so you’re going to be subject to some of them one way or another.

Get involved.

CPSC issues “guidance” for thrift and resale shops re: CPSIA

Thrift Store Sign
Creative Commons License photo credit: pixeljones

Earlier today, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a press release to clarify their intent regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) as it relates to thrift stores, resale shops and the like.

The full press release can be found here, but the operative text is this:

The new law requires that domestic manufacturers and importers certify that childrenâ??s products made after February 10 meet all the new safety standards and the lead ban. Sellers of used childrenâ??s products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits, phthalates standard or new toy standards.

The new safety law does not require resellers to test childrenâ??s products in inventory for compliance with the lead limit before they are sold. However, resellers cannot sell childrenâ??s products that exceed the lead limit and therefore should avoid products that are likely to have lead content, unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit. Those resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties

Make note that thrift stores and resellers are not off the hook entirely, but that common sense changes were made to deal with a real world situation. Sort of.

Saying that old items aren’t subject to the law is one thing, until you turn around and say that the lead rules must still be obeyed. No one wants to be feeding kids lead with their Cocoa Krispies, but for once, it’d be nice if the CPSC would talk out of only one side of their mouth at a time.

Keep the pressure on, folks.

We still need to see better handling of the testing requirements for one of a kind (OOAK) and small lot manufacturers. Not to exempt them, simply to make their requirements fit their abilities rather than bankrupting them.

[audio:http://www.rescuemarketing.com/podcast/CPSIAThriftResaleShopClarification.mp3]

Your son’s Pinewood Derby car: a “banned hazardous substance”

Pinewood Derby
Creative Commons License photo credit: midiman

Random thoughts get me in trouble sometimes. Today I got a call from the service manager of one of our local Chevy dealers.

Every February, the troop helps them by hand washing 250-280 cars during the dealer’s annual customer care clinic. It’s a brilliant free event that gets the dealer’s customers into the showroom for 30-40 minutes, feeds them, offers them door prizes, and most importantly – gets their cars run through the shop for a head to toe diagnostic/safety once-over by their certified mechanics.

In addition to finding some safety issues that could be fatal because they stranded you somewhere remote during our Montana winters, it also does a nice job of filling out the repair shop’s appointment book for a couple of months. 

After the inspection once-over is done, it gives the Scouts a chance to be seen in public doing something people appreciate (ie: handwashing their cars in February in Montana – albeit in a heated auto shop).

Anyhow, that conversation and the related thought process got me to thinking about The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA otherwise known as HR4040) and Scouting. Yes, its a bit of a tangent, but I got there, so let’s move on.

Patches, Pinewood and Pants

Im wondering if Boy Scouts of America (BSA) National Headquarters is aware that the CPSIA drastically tightens the rules for the sale and manufacture of children’s products, including clothing, furniture, toys and other items (basically, *everything* created for a young child).

Patches, gear and uniforms will fall under this law for Scouts in younger age groups. Old gear AND gear *currently in inventory* that has not been tested CANNOT BE SOLD, by Scout shops, on eBay, by retail stores, etc.

Even Cub Scout Pinewood Derby car kits are impacted. No manufacturers – not even one-of-a-kind (OOAK) products are exempted.

They didn’t leave out the Girl Scouts, of course.  All their gear and clothing are also under the watchful eye of this law.

The gear, patches and clothing currently in inventory is what will cause the most interest by BSA National because 300+ council offices have lots of stuff in inventory in their stores and summer camp trading posts. 

All of it has to be certified or tested, or it must be removed from sale on Feb 10th. Or someone has to find an exemption. Right now, there are no exemptions.

Why pick on the kids?

This law was written primarily to deal with large multi-national firms importing containers of lead-tainted junk toys, so the fines are substantial.

This law is big trouble for people who make homemade clothing/toys/furniture, for diaper services, for resale shops, those making their living on ebay/etsy.com and many others (including everyone they buy items from to make their business run).

Lots of effort is taking place to try and get it fixed, but its already a law and many of the rules have yet to be written by the CPSC – despite the fact that the major components of the law go into effect on Feb 10. As written, the law impacts everyone.

Im curious if this is even remotely on the BSA’s radar because it will impact every council scout shop and every retailer who carries Scout items, new or used.

It will impact all the ordering of gear, patches and so on for NOAC 2009, for the 45,000+ attendees of the 100th Anniversary National Scout Jamboree at Camp A.P. Hill in Virginia, and every summer camp’s trading post for the 2009 season (and so on). That’s a lot of stuff. 

Is the CPSIA a surprise for you? You’re in luck

Ive posted a number of articles about the CPSIA, so if this is the first you’ve heard about it, I’d suggest starting your CPSIA education here and I would also suggest calling the BSA National office and ask them about CPSIA compliance of items from BSA National Supply. Don’t bother your council office with this (unless you’re on the council board) because they really can’t do much about it other than make sure they are ordering from CPSIA-compliant vendors.

In the meantime, you might also see if your Scout shop has a sale on Pinewood Cars – and buy your model car paint early. At present, there’s no telling what the status of model paints will be after Feb 10.

The reach of this law never ceases to amaze me.

Have you called your Senators’ DC offices?

[audio:http://www.rescuemarketing.com/podcast/PinewoodDerbyHazardousSubstance.mp3]

What you should be doing about the CPSIA

mini-me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Gustty

I spent some time on the phone today with Senator Baucus’ office in DC. Ended up spending about 20 minutes with Bruce Fergusson, Baucus’ business specialist in this area. 

Bottom line – he said this:

  • If you contact your reps/Senators, calling them by phone is far and away the best thing to do. Call their DC office. Everyone emails and almost no one calls. Calling stands out and gets a real person on the line most times.
  • Because the legislation is already law, calling the CPSC for clarification of the impact on your specific business is best. They have till Feb 10 to formulate the first set of rules for the CPSIA. Your call – the sooner the better – can impact the result. You can contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission via the contact info behind this link.

 

Meanwhile, keep working on the other channels of communication:

  • Work as much as possible by phone.
  • Blog.
  • Write letters – real ones with a stamp.
  • Fax.
  • Get interviewed on local tv, radio or in the newspaper.
  • Talk to your vendors, manufacturers reps and markets about it. 
  • Tell your customers about it and ask them to contact their representatives. Give them a short letter to mail and sign to make it easy.

The number of people who know about this law is still very, very small. You can fix that.

February 10th is just around the corner.

Sweatshirts and t-shirts: Wondering who the CPSIA will put out of business.

Long-gone heyday
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bitterroot

I wonder whose business might be impacted by the CPSIA. 

I wonder about the nice lady whose son was in my troop years back. She embroiders and sells Columbia Falls Wildcat sweatshirts, tshirts, letter jackets and such – including items for little kids. Fortunately for her, the majority of her business isn’t for kids 12 and under, so she’ll probably be ok. BUT, she may have to replace that revenue stream. 

I wonder who she buys those kids’ sweatshirts and tshirts from. Maybe a wholesale tshirt and sweatshirt vendor in Minneapolis. 

I wonder how much of that Minnesotan’s business comes from folks who silkscreen, embroider or otherwise augment those items and then resell them.

I wonder how many of their employees will find new jobs as a result. 

I wonder how their buying power will change. 

I wonder if all of those silkscreeners, embroiderers and such are wholesaling their items to someone and if so, I wonder if those retailers have found another source of those items. 

I wonder about all the small retailers who have tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in now-non-compliant inventory and see that date in February looming.  Not having a CPSIA tag means non-compliant, regardless of content.

I wonder if, after Feb 10 – when no one can legally buy those items – what they’ll do with all that stuff.

I wonder if they’ll sell them anyway and dare the Consumer Product Safety Commission to find, catch and prosecute them.

I wonder if a $12.95 tshirt sale is worth a $100,000 fine. 

I wonder how many attorneys will make it big because of this legislation. 

I wonder how many local tourist shops will have to start buying their tshirts from big out-of-town importers and manufacturers instead of locals.

I wonder what those locals will do for a living if that happens.

I wonder what their bankers will do if the mortgage those locals have goes south.

I wonder if all those Chinese sweatshops have testing vendors lined up. They’ll be happy to make those sweatshirts, tshirts, baby booties, bibs and hand-painted sippy cups to replace the items that used to come from unique local vendors. I mean, come on…there’s nothing more special than a Glacier Park baby bib with a cute little baby moose sewn on it, especially if it was made in Shanghai by some poor schlep making 12 cents a day. 

I wonder if there are enough thankless low-paying jobs at the local box store to employ these artisans and the others impacted by the closing of those artisans’ businesses. 

I wonder which Congressional rep and Senator has the most homemade kids product manufacturers in their district.

I wonder if those reps and Senators’ phones have melted. Or if they ring at all.

I wonder… who is the largest retailer of handmade products in the US?

I wonder who is the largest supplier of raw material to the handmade kids product industry? 

I wonder what these two businesses will be doing in March.

I wonder about the impact on Etsy.com and ebay, which is aching enough as it is.

I wonder if cloth diaper services have to test their diapers. 

I wonder how many stores that sell beads and other crafty little things like that will have “no kids under 12 allowed” signs on the doors next year. 

I wonder if all those little “make your own bear/pottery/etc” stores are ready for this. 

I wonder if you’ll be impacted. 

I wonder if you’ll call your Congressional Rep and Senators. 

I wonder if you’ll tell someone about the CPSIA. 

I wonder.

[audio:http://www.rescuemarketing.com/podcast/IWonderAboutTheCPSIA.mp3]