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Posts Tagged ‘Bob Vahsholtz’

Who Represents Manufactured Housing?

November 11th, 2014 No comments

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.

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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.

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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:

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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 hoo!

Yoo hoo.

Yoo who? ##

bob-vahsholtz-author-dueling-curves-battle-for-housing-posted-industry-voices-guest-blog-mhpronews-com-manufatured-housing-professional-news-75x75-By Bob Vahsholtz, author of… 

Dueling Factions

September 2nd, 2014 No comments

In this time of industry crisis, many thoughts arise regarding strategy and direction, but there has been seemingly little effective action. A couple of old friends from my days in the industry, plus one new friend, Dr. David Funk, asked me to see if I could help things along by putting matters into historical perspective.

In my early days when the MH industry was breaking sales records every year (I’ve been retired for more than two decades), we were leaderless—in discord. No manufacturer originated more than ten percent of shipments. Those heady times ended with a crash—a major housing crisis.

Faced with ruin in the seventies, manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, community owners and the like pulled together behind a focused plan of action. It was a widely debated strategic decision to enhance industry credibility by accepting HUD supervision of a national building code for our product. There was plenty of dissent, but the plan had broad support. It was nominally led and presented by MHMA (the Mobile Home Manufacturer’s Association, the predecessor of MHI).

Wrong course? Maybe—we cannot know—but it attained consensus; we worked together and made it happen. A bit of a miracle, considering a long history of bickering and lack of leadership.

These days, we face a bigger challenge and yet … where’s today’s consensus? What’s the strategy? Where’s the leadership? You have a strategy, I have a strategy and yonder fellow behind the tree has a strategy, but what emerges is discord.

In my naïveté as I stepped back into this largely consolidated industry, I thought a leader would step forward, rally the troops behind a plan of action, and get on with developing our great potential. Strangely, that has not yet happened. As Rahm Emanuel said, and Tony quotes:

Never let a good crisis go to waste …

We’re wasting this crisis by fussing over “who’s right” instead of debating “what’s right.”

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Editor's Note: this is the MHProNews poster Bob Vasholtz is referencing,

the article and context it was used in is linked here.

“What’s right” is hard to say, but easier than finding broad agreement. No clear consensus seems to emerge from our diminished industry represented by multiple associations. None of them seems to have a handle on “what’s right,” though there seems a general agreement that the others are wrong and one organization (guess which) should lead the charge. It looks like we’ll not be singing Kumbaya real soon, so how about we start by tuning up Jim Krueger’s 1977 lyrics:

There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy
There’s only you and me and we just disagree

Nothing wrong with disagreement. There are many viable ways to tackle a problem and finding the best can be a stiff challenge, requiring many inputs—thoughtful discussion among all guys who are betting their companies on this industry’s future.

Underneath the rhetoric there is probably an industry consensus that no one has managed to dig out, articulate, and work into a viable strategy. There seems to be no vehicle for doing so. We’re all on the same side, and yet can’t seem to band together and work toward a mutually acceptable way forward. Wow.

It sorta reminds me of national politics. The Republican party caters to the radical right, Democrats the loosely left and the sensible consensus is leaderless.

Rick Rand has a great idea to pull the factions together, shake ’em in a sack, and see what emerges (my words, not his!). I’m on record in support of Rick’s idea, but suggest the challenge is … difficult. It has been my observation that industry progress tends to be incremental with breakthroughs few and far between. How and where, for example, might our scattered and somewhat contentious flock even gather so discussions can begin? How can we, this industry, get past internal politics and start the ball rolling? We’re a young and feisty bunch competing in a turgid housing market. Where, exactly, do we begin to get a handle on a viable and agreeable strategy?

Tony suggests in these pages, “Perhaps we need a few dozen retired guys—or those so financially comfortable—that they don’t fear speaking out publicly on touchy issues that matter to our industry.”

Well gee, I’m such a veteran, happily retired, having no skin in the game and representing no one. I’d be pleased to join with similar voices and see what we can conjure. Thomas Jefferson said:

Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.

I’m an ol’ Kansas farm boy, have my grandpa’s anvil in the barn and can still swing a hammer. Let’s get on with it!

While Tony’s idea is terrific, I wonder if a gaggle of geezers of good intent can do much beyond early steps in the direction of uniting our industry voice toward a viable strategy? Without unity, the problems of a leaderless industry drag on and strategy does not emerge. Agreeing upon one viable association seems a good place to start such useful discussions while reducing internal conflict. Maybe that should be at the top of the agenda for such a senior-citizen forum?

In support of Tony’s and Rick’s ideas, and with incremental progress in mind, here’s another suggestion. Conduct a survey of all segments of the industry, trolling for consensus. Put forth a professionally-written survey, geared toward one question: Which single association or group should speak for our industry in dealing with the important questions we face today—and why (or why not)?

To still protests, the survey must be inclusive, fair and objective. Who can do that? Foremost has long been respected as a provider of solid industry data and could probably do it well. The results, if clear, would be hard to deny, leading toward consolidation. They might sponsor such research in lieu of their next MH survey. The results could be of historic importance.

As with Rick’s conclave and Tony’s summit of the aged, the outcome of such a survey should not be expected to result in a shiny new industry strategy. First we need positive steps for getting back on track—taking what Peter Drucker called results oriented action, toward our industry’s great potential—at minimum, enabling us to speak clearly to confused Washington bureaucrats.

One step at a time along our learning curve. It’s kinda dumb to be racing off in different directions when times are tough and we most need to pull together. ##

bob-vahsholtz-author-dueling-curves-battle-for-housing-posted-industry-voices-guest-blog-mhpronews-com-manufatured-housing-professional-news-75x75-Bob Vahsholtz is the author of DUELING CURVES The Battle for Housing Bob can be reached at kingmidgetswest@gmail.com. Web: www.kingmidgetswest.com.

(Editor's Note: All opinions expressed are those of the writer, and may or may not represent the views of this publication, editor or our sponsors. Other points of view are welcome. OpEds or Letters to the Editor on industry related issues may be sent to latonyk@gmail.com or tony@mhmsm.com, thank you.

As a point of fact, Bob Vahsholtz clearly agrees on some things, disagrees on others, with L. A. “Tony” Kovach's editorial perspectives. Alignment with Masthead view points is not required for publication! :-)

The Value of IMAGE, The Image of VALUE

July 9th, 2014 No comments

There is much talk of the need to “do something” about our industry’s image. Wow, that’s some understatement!

But what? And how? And who will pay for the refurbishment?

It’s a deep problem. It’s hard to refurbish an image that was never really “furbished” in the first place! The MH industry has a lot of growing up to do, and it’s quite a challenge.

Tony Kovach recently published the following graph.

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Our eyes jump to the trend of the past decade, which emphasizes the need to “do something.” I invite you to study the other end of that graph. The sixties.

In that decade, as today, the rule of thumb for a stick builder was to dedicate about half of construction cost to materials. That didn’t work for those building homes in factories. They had to build a product sturdy enough to ship a thousand miles on its own wheels, and if material content dropped below 60 percent—lock the factory doors. No reputable dealer would buy. In those days, despite buying all that material factory-direct and very efficient labor, the MH cost was far higher per square foot than a house (excluding land).

By the end of that decade, the rule of thumb—the MH optimum for sales maximization—was 70 percent material, 10 percent labor, 10 percent overhead and 10 percent pretax profit. In good years, that worked and profits rolled in. In bad years, you got hammered.

Sounds like a loser business?

Not if you knew your stuff. If you managed 30-plus inventory turns, collected cash on delivery of the homes, operated in a pole-barn factory and had nominal investment, you could operate on your supplier’s 30-days-same-as cash payment plan. Banks released floor-plan cash upon delivery of the home. 100 percent return on equity was not out of the question. But everything had to work.

Look again at Tony’s graph. Everything did work during that decade for those who managed well. A year of no sales increase was considered a recession.

Manufacturers had to master that formula or get out of the race. Competition was brutal, but everyone understood that no one could do it alone. Manufacturers, suppliers, dealers, developers and banks. All were highly profitable when they got their sums and strategies right.

The quality of manufactured homes soared and the cost of producing them plunged. Such was the magnitude of opportunity in the sleepy housing industry.

It was Skyline, Fleetwood and the like who got the publicity—biggest MH manufacturers, most profitable companies in the stock market and all that. Surely they should have stepped up to the plate and “done something” about the industry’s image?

Well, they did what they could, but their hands were tied. Every nickel of such a manufacturer’s profit would have funded just one percent of industry sales for an image-building program. And what, one might ask, could a manufacturer have done for its image more useful than investing in product improvement? That’s what the critics and customers requested, and rightly so.

The largest manufacturers each held less than 10 percent market share and had plenty of competition snapping at their britches. Which of those “leaders” should have stepped up to the plate and invested significant funds in the industry’s image? Sure the profits were good, but they didn’t stay that way.

Look again at Tony’s graph, and what happened when things stopped going well for the industry in the early seventies. That’s why there was so much resistance to the HUD standard, and still is. That’s why it has always been hard to get those “big manufacturers” to spend “just a little bit more” on the want-of-the-week. If the competition doesn’t do the same, you’re toast. Real competition is not for the faint of heart, but it works wonders for customers.

Competitive product improvement, step by step. Learning curve. That’s how the MH industry cut the cost of building homes in half. Focused, efficient, production in a housing market where nobody was in charge, regulation was rampant and good times were rolling. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a repeat of that kind of housing opportunity.

My enthusiasm for today’s outlook is based on the fact that the leaders have survived and now have commanding market share, while retaining—improving—their production cost advantage over the stick guys. I don’t know what the Big Three’s margins are, but they’re profitable. We’re in a new and potentially better ball game.

The outlook is marred by the yo yo of housing demand, fluctuating with the whims of the economy and regulators. That’s why, when asked to write a book on the potential of manufactured housing, I said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

It didn’t take much research to change my mind. The survivors seem to have learned to cope with such market volatility and stifling regulation. The production cost advantage is still increasing and the competition continues to doze. Well managed surviving MH producers remain profitable in a scenario that would have crushed any normal manufacturing industry long ago … but woe to the manufacturer who single-handedly takes on the cost of a major industry image upgrade.

It needs to be done, but has to be a team effort, with participation by most members of the industry at large. And there has to be strong leadership so we all head the same direction.

Given the squabbling we all see and regret, is there any hope?

Of course there is! The MH industry has always been a teamwork affair, where even bitter enemies worked together to keep the system functioning, because we all had a vested interest in keeping this marvelous housing system pumping, cranking out houses and profits. That has not changed.

Sure HUD, Dodd-Frank and their ilk are a royal pain in the butt, but they strangle the other guys, too. Despite best efforts of bureaucrats to rule by regulation, economics will win in the end, and we’ve figured out an inherently better way to build houses.

Yes, for a time we fouled our nest. Young industries do that. Yes, the public disdains “trailers.” Tell me what sort of low cost housing they like? Nobody wants low cost housing except those having a nose for value or low income. Those are huge markets that no other product can satisfy that need as well as manufactured housing.

What we lack in image, we more than make up in value.

Let’s build on that. ##

bob-vahsholtz-author-dueling-curves-battle-for-housing-posted-industry-voices-guest-blog-mhpronews-com-manufatured-housing-professional-news-75x75-Bob Vasholtz is the author of Dueling Curves. Bob Vahsholtz is the author of DUELING CURVES The Battle for Housing. Bob can be reached at kingmidgetswest@gmail.com. Web: www.kingmidgetswest.com

A prior guest column from Bob – Who's in Charge Here – is linked.

 

(Editor's Note: The chart show above is courtesy of CalculatedRisk and was used in the following article, Manufactured Housing's Declaration of Independence. As with all letters to th editor, articles and guest column, the views represented are those of the writer. Other perspectives are welcome, email latonyk@gmail.com with Letters to the Editor or OpEd in the subject line.)

Who’s in Charge Here?

June 3rd, 2014 No comments

Rick Rand’s excellent proposal for an all-industry conclave at a neutral location is gathering momentum. Such a venue should certainly not screen out the smaller operators who have always been a prime source of innovation, and it is vitally important that the “big guys” also be at the table. Make room for the various associations charged with the thankless task of placating the placating the industry’s many voices.

As a long-retired veteran of manufactured housing, I’m appalled at the conflicts, back-biting and lack of leadership that has always hamstrung our young industry. It was understandable in the early days when the largest manufacturers controlled less than ten percent of shipments and no other industry constituent was in a position make things happen beyond his own company (in those days, the leading players were all men).

Today, though manufactured housing is a shadow of its former self, the product itself is far better, the need for affordable housing is far greater, the leading manufacturers remain profitable, the market for manufactured housing communities is heating up and the stick competition is in disarray. So why are our sales volumes in the dumper?

It is true of course that we, as an industry, have made many mistakes. And we’ll make more.

In a free enterprise system, we learn from our mistakes and keep moving forward. That’s exactly what needs to happen at the kind of meeting Rick has proposed. Pull the tribe together with an agenda focused on the problems we’ve created, the opportunities ahead and agree upon a broad based strategy to deal with today’s challenges. Ideas and innovations are often sparked over a cup of coffee or glass of beer, and contacts have always been the lifeblood of the industry.

But far more is needed than griping about Dodd-Frank and what names we should use for our products. Consider some fundamentals.

Housing is one of America’s least efficient industries. That includes stick builders and us too. Why is that? Well, there’s no serious foreign or domestic competition, no real industry leadership, way too much regulation and negligible innovation. That’s been the case for a hundred years.

Academics and all sorts of advanced thinkers have, for at least that long, looked to industrializing the building process to break out of housing’s quagmire. It has finally happened. The industry we now call manufactured housing has demonstrated the ability to build good housing at roughly half the cost of traditional methods, and we have the black eyes to prove it.

As one result, America’s largest home builder is one of us, and one of the world’s richest men bankrolls MH financing. Something like 20 million Americans live in homes we’ve built and the vast majority of them appreciate the comfort and value those homes provide. There’s ever so much more that could and should be done, but we’ve made a better start than any other tilter at housing’s windmills. Many have tried.

One thing the MH industry agreed upon some 40 years ago was to unite under the HUD banner. That turned out to be a painful process with about as many negative as positive outcomes. We banded together again to reform that process with the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000 (MHIA 2000), but guess what? Big Brother has its own ideas about “Improvement” which do not include a lot of use for industry committee input.

We’ve got a lot going for us, and yet the squabbles continue. If there’s an industry strategy, it did not emerge from my recent research. What is happening is a plethora of tactics, put forward under various banners, mostly going nowhere.

As an industry professional, you can put forward some ideas for how to deal with these challenges. So can I, and I’ve done so in my recent book, Dueling Curves. It’s not enough.

Maybe at Rick’s gathering of the tribes, some sort of consensus can be reached, on a whole bunch of nifty ideas.

But that’s not enough either.

The single most important objective of such a congress—or whatever it’s to be called—should be to the emergence of industry leadership. Not a task force, committee or agency, but a person of vision who commands the respect of the industry.

A tribal chief who can weave the disparate strengths of the manufacturers, suppliers, financiers, retailers, MH owners and community operators into a strategy we can all salute. Oh well, yes, there will always be a few curmudgeons. No one will be entirely happy with any strategic vision adequate to unite us; not even the leader who ultimately propounds it.

But let me suggest this. Should we fail to unite behind competent leadership, I can suggest who will become take charge of the industry. Well, maybe I shouldn’t name names, but the initials are H.U.D. ##

bob-vahsholtz-author-dueling-curves-battle-for-housing-posted-industry-voices-guest-blog-mhpronews-com-manufatured-housing-professional-news-75x75-Bob Vahsholtz is the author of DUELING CURVES The Battle for Housing Bob can be reached at kingmidgetswest@gmail.com. Web: www.kingmidgetswest.com