Selling Buggy Whips in an era of Climate Change…

A very long time ago, I worked in the Finance Department of a buggy whip manufacturer – or at least the equivalent, in the 1980s.

In case you have not come across the story of the buggy whip manufacturer recently, it goes something like this, from a site called “risky thinking”:  “The buggy whip is a staple of management courses. Somewhere there is a mythical company which became very good at making buggy whips. It became the dominant company in its field. It didn’t diversify. It stuck to what it was good at. And now it is gone. The horse and buggy has disappeared, and with it, the company that made the last buggy whip.

The message here is that there is a risk to just sticking to what you are good at. You get better and better at what you do, but ultimately a disruptive technology comes along and you’re a historical footnote. (I know, disruptive technology is now an obsolete buzz phrase, but indulge me.)

It’s interesting seeing new disruptive technologies coming along, and watching how companies react to them. http://www.riskythinking.com/articles/article4.php

penMy “buggy whip experience” was with the Parker Pen Company, founded and based at that time in Janesville, WI.  We made pens.  Very good pens, including the ones used by the White House and in the space program – we even designed a special ink that worked in a “Jotter” in space.  But the market changed – the disruptive technology of computers dealt our industry a severe blow, and Parker was purchased by our British Subsidiary, then by the Newell Rubbermaid Group in Switzerland.  We COULD have embraced the new technology – but we chose not to.  We made pens.

I’m reminded of this story each time I consider the issue of climate change, and the perils and opportunities it brings for us all.  An opinion piece by Andrea Wilson Mueller in the Kentucky Courier-Journal says it better than I could, however:  http://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/2015/11/09/fighting-climate-change-could-bolster-ky-economy/75454494/

To repeat:  If government should be run like a business, then policymakers, like business owners, must plan for the worst even as they hope for the best.”   All business owners have learned that change is NOT optional; it just happens.  Our job is to take advantage of that change, to make it an opportunity.

In Parker Pen’s case, perhaps if they had further developed the bar-code reader that was jettisoned because it was not a “pen”, their future would have been brighter.