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How to protect your company from the trade wars whack-a-mole game

If you’re selling to China or other countries, this is a good time to determine if tariffs will mean your prices will increase to the point that you are no longer competitive, says James Cassel.
If you’re selling to China or other countries, this is a good time to determine if tariffs will mean your prices will increase to the point that you are no longer competitive, says James Cassel. AP file | Sept. 16, 2018

Are the trade wars a game of whack-a-mole? It certainly seems like it. You knock one down and another unpredictably pops up. What’s next? The EU? Japan? Australia?

It’s anyone’s guess, but just because farmers were partially bailed out of a multibillion-dollar problem caused by the current trade war with China, doesn’t mean you or your business will be so lucky.

The time has come to evaluate how your company will be affected by the escalation of disputes with two of our biggest trading partners, China and possibly Mexico. As it pertains to Mexico, we have a reprieve for now, but in the game of whack-a-mole you never know what’s going to pop up next.

So, here’s what you should be doing to ride out the disputes:

First, take a hard look at your business to determine where you are exposed. Ask yourself tough questions. Will these trade wars affect your supply chain or customer base? Do your company’s products use technology developed by Chinese companies, and if so, can that technology be used against your company to steal trade secrets or surveil your customers? Do you own or control a factory in China or Mexico and what will these trade disputes mean for those operations?

If you’re selling to China or other countries, this is a good time to determine if tariffs will mean your prices will increase to the point that you are no longer competitive. Will increasing prices affect your volume and margins? You should monitor the changes to learn what your company can endure and what it can’t.

You must drill down and evaluate what issues might arise for your business. If you depend on Chinese business partners, or even employees, it’s time to reconsider how dependent you are on them, and whether there are any viable alternatives in the short term, and maybe even for the long term. If you are primarily doing business with Mexican partners and a tariff is instated, alternatives may prove scarce.

Another issue to consider is one that so many U.S. companies already know. The price of doing business in China will many times mean giving up or compromising your intellectual property. So, in deciding if and how to cut ties with China, you must be careful to ensure you are not creating your own competitor in the process by figuring out how best to protect your intellectual property.

Mexico presents a different challenge. Its proximity to the U.S. and lower labor costs will be hard to replicate elsewhere. It might only be possible to move manufacturing back to the U.S. and suffer increased costs and capacity issues in the short term. Though some of those expenses may be partially offset by lower shipping costs.

If you do have a factory in China, now may be the time to consider moving it to Vietnam or another part of the region. You will have to calculate the viability of moving that factory, as well as the time it will take to move your operation. You may even wish to take it a step further and consider that now might be the right time to replace your workforce altogether by investing in robotics to streamline operations and reduce the number of employees.

You may also want to renegotiate existing relationships to lower costs, modify your business model by increasing your prices, or get suppliers to absorb the added costs that come with tariff increases. Do some research to find out if there are any suitable substitute suppliers. Try and find businesses that offer similar costs and capabilities that you can work with.

Some say the trade wars will go on until the next election; some predict it will last even longer. Whatever the outcome, your work begins now. Those who get caught in the crossfire later may find themselves with surprise competitors built on stolen intellectual property, sagging sales or increased costs that will simply price you out of competition.

James S. Cassel is co-founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., LLC, an investment-banking firm with headquarters in Miami that works with middle-market companies.

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