The last couple of months have been tough for the economy. The markets are down. Credit has tightened up to the point it is strangling any growth. Some large dealerships have closed their doors due to declining sales and not being able to finance their floor plans or customers.
It is tough to remain positive in this toxic environment of criminal CEOs, bailouts and other economic foul play. But, if you look hard enough, you can find the positive.
This month, our offices had our annual “clean-up day.” While arranging the 76 bound volumes of BRAKE & FRONT END by year, I made a startling discovery. The thickness of volumes corresponded to the state of the economy for a given year. When arranged, it closely followed the economic trends of the past 76 years. Why? When the economy goes south, the first thing a company will cut is the advertising and marketing budgets. When conditions improve, they start advertising again to grow their business. This translates into thinner or thicker issues of the magazines. It has been this way since the start of the BRAKE & FRONT END in 1931. Basically, the volumes are like the growth rings of a tree showing good and bad seasons. Unfolding on the shelves in my office I could see the damage and recovery of events like the Great Depression, World War II and September 11th, 2001.
What was the worse year? 1944 was the thinnest volume by far. This was due to rationing of gas, rubber and even paper. Also, most of our advertisers were making products for the war effort. But, brake service took on a new importance by preventing brake drag that wastes gas and locking wheels that destroyed rubber tires.
What was the best year? This is tough to say. Some of the thickest volumes were made between 1958 and 1964 (although 1998-2003 is not far behind). This is when the interstate freeway system was being built and suburbs made the car a necessity for most Americans.
Some contraction in the sizes of the magazines were seen in the early 1970 as gas prices and inflation increased. But, the size of BRAKE & FRONT END increased as the 1970s waned as more advertisers started selling asbestos-free brake materials and equipment manufacturers advertised expensive OSHA-approved brake dust vacuums and baths.
The early 1980s were tough as the economy struggled with unemployment and inflation. But, by 1985 the size the magazine was growing again in more ways than one. Midway through the year, BRAKE & FRONT END switched from digest sized to the format you hold in you hands.
After spending most of the day looking at the issues, I realized that tough times make everybody look at their business and come up with new innovations and practices. This self-reflection would have never happened under the best economic conditions.
Shop owners also take risks they would not normally take. Also, in my opinion, independent shops survive better than almost any other industry. This can be seen in the shops we profiled over the years that are still in business.
Looking forward, these tough economic times will probably continue for a couple of years if the BRAKE & FRONT END economic indicators are right. But, when shops, parts manufacturers and consumers come out of it, the predicted recovery will be better than ever.