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Today's Most Disruptive Trends in Manufacturing with Joel Block
Episode 720th December 2021 • The Manufacturers' Network • Lisa Ryan
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Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. I'm here today with Joel Block. Joel is a futurist, long-time venture capitalist, and hedge fund manager, which is gobbledygook for a professional investor who lives in a shark tank like on TV. Initially, an expert blackjack player, counting cards, and beating casinos in Las Vegas, Joel later built and sold his publishing company to a Fortune 500 company. Joel, welcome to the show.

Joel Block: Lisa, thanks for having me. How are you?

Lisa Ryan: Good, good, thanks. I know that this is a manufacturing podcast, and we're going to be getting there. There are all kinds of disruptive business trends going on in manufacturing. Before we get started, you are a professional investor, which means you look forward in time. How do you decide exactly what to do regarding these trends that you're talking about?

Joel Block: I started in the gambling business, and I take risks for a living. I look at things. Investors give me their capital. I'm not a broker. Investors literally give me their money, and then we buy something together, and then we share the profits. That's how Wall Street works. It's how my business functions, and that's been in that business for 30 years. I've bought and sold companies. I've built and sold my own company from scratch to a big company, and I've done with many other companies entrepreneurial-type people have tried to do.

I look at companies from many different perspectives, and I think about the impact of other things happening in the world. Then I think about who will win, who will lose, and that's how I do it.

One of the things that we'll talk about, I hope, is disruptive business trends because these are things that could knock you out of your lane or cause you some problems. I like to think about that. I want to think about what could go right, what could go wrong, and the impact of different kinds of external and internal things. There's a lot here, and you will unpack a lot of stuff.

Lisa Ryan: So, how did you get started in all this? What was your journey as far as where you started and how you ended up here?

Joel Block: I learned how to play blackjack as a young. I was 20-21 years old. I was in casinos. I was playing, and actually, I knew I was good at it. But I also knew if I kept playing, I wouldn't have gone to college, and it would have been bad for me in the long run. So I ended up getting an accounting degree and became a CPA. I worked at Price Waterhouse, but I was a little rebellious. I wasn't an excellent account. If I didn't quit, I'd been fired for sure.

What made me not be a good accountant made me great in business. I asked a lot of questions. I always wondered, and they didn't want me to wonder things. They wanted me to be a good soldier and do the work. I wasn't a good soldier, but I was a great general. That wasn't what they needed from me, so I get that, and it wasn't the right environment. So I started a real estate syndication company where I learned how to raise capital.

I learned how this stuff works and then started a venture capital transaction I built and sold. I've just stayed in that business ever since. I love doing deals and buying and selling things. I spent a lot of time helping executives of different kinds of companies to see the world. It may be another way because I bring a different perspective to them. I helped them to learn from all the things that I've learned. You go inside of 1000 companies in your career – buying, selling, looking at their books and records and be involved with those companies, and you learn a few things. I've been around the block and share a lot of Intel with my clients or companies we work with.

Lisa Ryan: A lot of the discussions you get into have to do with private equity, so what exactly does that mean, and why are you having these kinds of conversations with manufacturers recently?

Joel Block: Many smaller companies are being approached by private equity firms to buy them. This is a very, very robust time for sales transactions. I recently was talking to a guy who called me to say, "I'm not ready to sell my company yet, but I'm starting to get some calls." What do you think I said? Well, the iron is hot. Companies are paying a lot for companies, so these private equity outfits are spending a lot. So if you're thinking about selling, you may not be perfectly ready, but the time may be just right.

Companies are paying a lot because there's a lot of money on the sidelines. Private equity companies only make money. When they deploy their capital and buy assets and then put those assets to work, that's the only way they make any money. They've got a big pool of capital in a bank that's not making them any money, and they got to put it to work. That's part of the reason they're so aggressively looking for companies to buy now that presupposes everybody understands what private equity is if I could just give you a minute on this.

Lisa Ryan: Yeah, please.

Joel Block: It's a complicated business. I've spent my whole life in it. It's a kind of business that most people don't understand. Here's how this works. If you have equity ownership, like when you have your house, you have a mortgage, which is the bank borrowing - that's debt. Then there's equity, which is the part that you own. So we're not talking about the debt part. We're talking about the equity part, just the amount you own.

Equity comes in two primary forms. There could be public equity, which is the stock market where people put their savings or their retirement or their pension fund goes into. They're called equity securities. That's where you're buying the equity of a company. That's public equity because it's been processed through the government regulatory system. There's a whole other category called private equity, which has any business funded privately now that could be a small business where a family puts the money in to run their little company. It could be a large business that is just as owned privately by families are people, but it's not public, so there can be many owners. A private equity firm is a firm that specializes in taking in capital from typically other firms and other funds, and they aggregate all this capital together. Then they go and look to buy things. They tend to have something in common. Whatever it is they believe, they'll have a strategy.

For example, they want to put a network of manufacturing companies in a specific category. We want to buy and put the other roofing companies; we want to buy and put together manufacturing companies; we want to buy and put together mobile home parks. There are different ways that you can group assets. These companies are looking for venture capital and finance for innovative or early-stage companies. Another example is hedge funds which are well known but not well understood. There are lots of different kinds. Most of the types that affect manufacturing are these firms looking to buy companies, and they're building portfolios of what are called portfolio companies.

They're trying to get ten different companies with some synergy to work together and help each other. They're not financial buyers, which are only looking for returns. They're called strategic buyers because they're trying to build synergies among their assets. So that's who's making the phone calls. The good news is that they're not price-sensitive. They're more concerned about the value of their portfolio and your ability to contribute to their portfolio. It's not about how great you are. It's about how great of a fit you are into their portfolio.

Lisa Ryan: When I think about venture capital, I think of days of old where these companies were coming in and buying companies to tear them apart and sell them and pieces. But it sounds like what you're saying is they're looking to build something where a group of companies will make money. So instead of tearing things apart, they're building things together. Is that what I'm hearing?

Joel Block: Well, these things are not. They're not mutually exclusive. You know some companies by and tear things down, some companies by an aggregate assets something so there are all different strategies that these companies will do. But what probably affects the manufacturing industry more right now are probably the ones where the people are aggregating - strategically aggregating assets to build a portfolio. That is not to say that somebody wouldn't buy a company and then have a garage sale. There might be great real estate. They may have some other idea for what the business could be. There's a familiar saying right in my neighborhood where there was a great restaurant fantastic restaurant. They came in probably paid 50 times more than the restaurant was worth because they wanted the real estate to build a large-scale apartment shopping Center. So it's not out of the question that that doesn't exist. It does. Most of what's happening in manufacturing right now are probably strategic buys for building portfolios.

Lisa Ryan: And what do you see, are some of the other significant trends on the horizon for manufacturers?

Joel Block: The fact that private equities calling is a trend. It's not a disruptive trend, but it's happening. Some other things are big and important. The most significant thing that manufacturing companies could do immediately that would most impact their pricing would most positively impact their bottom line is to get off the transactional treadmill where you sell something. The next day you have to sell something else, next to sell something else and move toward more of a subscription or a recurring revenue model. Many people will say, oh, this doesn't apply to us. That's more of a technology thing. But Wall Street and the private equity companies love these kinds of revenue numbers. They love recurring revenue because it's dependable.

In manufacturing, what does that mean that could be an auto-ship, where somebody signs up for an automatic shipment every month. You give them some reason why they would do that; Maybe they get priority shipping, priority inventory, maybe they get a slight price discount for being automatic. You can have a whole service department, where your service department is based on we're going to send somebody out whenever you need them. So we have a service contract service. Contracts are recurring revenue, so there are different ways that manufacturing firms can install recurring revenue programs into their model. It's essential because recurring revenue is higher quality than transactional revenue, so it's different. The real difference here, the trend, is that this is not about all dollars being the same color green because they're not. Recurring revenue dollars are worth more, and that's just an important distinction that I hope your listeners can understand. Suppose they move in the direction of starting to create higher quality revenue. In that case, they move toward making their company more valuable, whether it's to an acquirer or just for the current ownership and management to have more money come to the bottom line. Those are better dollars.

Lisa Ryan: It just seems that this is a different way of thinking when it comes to manufacturing and when the last two years now, with COVID and everything else that's been going on of looking at every aspect of your business differently. Certainly, recurring revenue, some auto-ship can be a game-changer for some people listening today.

Joel Block: it's a real game-changer. The first big company that did this was Microsoft. Microsoft was always in the software sales business, but they're no longer in the software sales business. They're in the software rental business. You don't buy Office anymore. You rent it yearly - Office 365, their new program (and it took a long time for it to catch on). Still, once it finally caught on, they were rewarded with not only enormously more revenue, enormously more net profit, but enormously more market CAP.

Those prices or stock went enormously higher, so part of it was related to more revenue that came to the bottom line, and part of it was a Wall Street rewarded them with a higher number. All those things together, it's fantastic. These are concerns that are easy for companies to address. I wouldn't say easy, but this isn't the most complicated thing in the world. If people sit in a boardroom and start thinking, How can we create some recurrence? How can we create some repetitiveness so that our salespeople don't have to be knocking on doors all the time? That's the beginning of a solution.

Lisa Ryan: It also ties those customers to you. It makes it harder for them to leave you and go to a competitor because they know you're always there. Their products are expected.

Joel Block: And that's why your company becomes more valuable. You're not a transient kind of company where things are coming and going, and maybe somebody buys, perhaps they don't buy. When you start getting the kind of regularity, regularity means loyalty and loyalty are bankable. When you've got that then, you're in the money.

Lisa Ryan: When I think about it from a convenience factor, because, even with the Microsoft 365, which of course I went into that fighting kicking screaming, I wanted to buy that and pay one time for it. But then they just made it so darn attractive for you, with the different things you could do on PowerPoint, and it just made sense to stay with that program. So it's the same thing if you as a manufacturer can figure out how to make it more convenient for your customers, how to give them, like you said, discounts or better service or priority shipping, or that they know that they are first in line.

When it comes to some of the shortages that we're doing because they're recurring customers versus some Joe off the street, that will be a one-shot deal. If you're making an offer, they can't refuse.

Joel Block: That's exactly right. If you look more carefully at Microsoft, think about this because this is what used to happen. Maybe your experience is the same. About every five years, I buy a new copy of Office. I go to Staples, and I pay about $200. Of that. Microsoft probably got half, so they got about $100. Then I would take that disk and give copies of it to my kids. But, of course, I wasn't supposed to do that, so we all did the same thing.

So, every five years, Microsoft got 100 bucks out of me. So they come out with this new idea, they say, look you're going to get all our updates, you're going to get everything too, you're going to have it all the time, and you get the whole suite there's no fool around. You can have as many people, and all five of your people in your family can be on the thing. So what do they do now? So Staples is out of the loop, so they got 100 bucks direct. They get it every year, so in 10 years under my old pattern, they would have probably got $200, but now under the new pattern, they get $1,000, so that's five times more.

Wall Street gave them a two-times bump on their multiple because I'm a more loyal customer now. I mean, now they've got predictable revenue. Suppose you look at the stock price. Their stock price is up almost ten times from about 2014. The numbers have gone up by ten times when you look at the numbers. It's not inflation. It's because Wall Street has rewarded them for specific patterns of activity. These patterns of movement help manufacturing companies do precisely the same thing.

They need to be doing some of this. This is a very disruptive trend; it's a powerful trend, and there are strategies that companies need to employ to hook into these things and to take advantage of them.

Lisa Ryan: When you also mentioned inflation so, and that's something that's come up in a lot of conversations in the last several weeks, several months, how does inflationary market affect manufacturing.

Joel Block: Well, you know what's obvious is the prices go higher. A couple of things happen. Number one on the supply side, everything you have to buy goes higher. On the sell side, everything to sell as to go higher, so the whole ocean just lifted a little bit, you know, everything went up a little bit. But there's a lot more to it than that. If you borrow money, there's a perfect chance that interest rates will be higher.

 Not long from now, I mean the Fed is working on this right now. They haven't exactly released it; we'll know more by the time this episode comes out. But the likelihood is that the Fed will be raising interest rates at least somewhat, so that means that if you carry inventory, you're carrying costs are going to be going higher. That puts pressure on manufacturers. There's a lot there, so that's a very problematic thing in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturers need to plan for that. They need to be as lean as they can on inventory. But then, they're conflicted because there's a supply chain problem. They want to have as much inventory as they can because otherwise, they may not give me more. So there's an actual conflict, which companies have to work through and think through. That's the impact of inflation. Inflation impacts us in many different ways, and the other thing is that consumers are getting pinched. As prices start going higher, food, gas, travel, housing - those numbers go higher for people. They have less discretionary income, so depending on the kind of product you produce, whether you're an end-user product or something that goes into another product, there may be fewer dollars available. So as the economy starts to contract and get a little smaller because people don't have the money to keep going.

Over the last ten years, more air has been put into the balloon. The balloon is the economy, and the economy gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And now, a little bit of air will start coming out of that balloon. It's not going to be like the recession during COVID. It's not going to be the recession of 2008, but we can expect that the balloons will get a little smaller. That means that everybody will have to tighten their belt a little bit because things are going to change. That's a more extensive discussion than now, but certainly, it's an important question that you bring up.

Lisa Ryan: What are you, seeing as far as the manufacturers are doing well right now to prepare for the future? What are the mistakes that you're seeing that they're making?

Joel Block: You know COVID was kind of a mixed bag for people. For some people, it just knocked them off their podium, and they lost their balance. They had to reorganize themselves. For others demonstrated remarkable resilience, and they confirmed the ability to think clearly that this market is not working anymore. They looked at the landscape. They asked what other landscapes can we address. They found other places to start selling in different ways to put their products into the marketplace. They started thinking about what other problems that we could solve are. That's the question that you have. That's the fundamental question. What problem do we solve? When you understand what problem you solve well, who has this problem. Where are those people? How do...