The Capital Trap

(or why my printshop isn’t like a transformer)

It’s been a while, gentle readers, and I’m sure that many of you have given me up for dead. Well, to paraphrase Monty Python, we’re not quite dead yet. Nonetheless, the images of loading bodies onto the two-wheeled cart are ummmh . . . ominously relevant.

It’s been a very rough two years, and I’m still looking for the corner to turn.  This may be a recession in the rest of the U.S., but in our small market, it feels a lot like a depression. We are struggling with a bad combination of circumstances. We have fewer customers with less money and greater reluctance to spend it. This is coupled with a sea change in the way we communicate that has not at all favored our core business: print. And to state that our resources are limited would be a wild exaggeration. They are simply nonexistent.

I’ve read about the capital trap. Usually it refers to banks and the total contradiction of government demands to both lend more and raise capital reserves. This is prima facie lunacy. How can you do both? Like most small businesses, the printshop behind the red awnings has been slighted when it comes to government largesse; and the banks quit lending to us before the balance sheet deteriorated to the point that Poor Richard could actually understand the bankers’ reluctance.

Poor Richard would like his business to become a Transformer. I’ve always been a little intrigued by these gadgets. The Transformers came along in my college days . . . I remember a slightly older friend’s 5 year old showing me the first one. “Now it’s a car, now it’s a monster machine!” he said as he pressed the button that released the monster.

“Now it’s a printshop, now it’s a monster communications machine!” Alas, were it only so.

The new “marketing services” that we’re all supposed to be so excited about providing did not gain traction in our little town. We’ve done a little, but the time requirements have been high and the return low. There are some product opportunities, but at this point we lack the capital resources to pursue them.

Our little shop is caught in it’s own version of a “capital trap.” When things were good, we invested in what we thought would be the capital equipment that would keep us growing in years to come.  Justification of the equipment was based on the ill-conceived (in hindsight)  notion that business would grow a little, or at least remain stable at mid-2000s levels. In our case, we still have the equipment, but the demand for the production has faded. We’re paying for the equipment, but it isn’t paying for itself.

In a different time, we would just sell the machinery, stomach a little loss and move on. Now, the only market for the machines we have purchased is overseas and the selling prices really don’t even justify the trouble required to move the equipment.  Unfortunately,  the notes on the machinery are not based upon present valuations, but upon the value of the machines before we warped into a parallel universe where printing equipment is worth little more than scrap metal. Naturally, the banks and leasing companies are reluctant to simply concede the devaluation of the machinery or the obligation. It’s kindof like real estate . . .

There is very little solace in the knowledge that we’re not alone in this predicament. Poor Richard has a friend, customer, and fellow small business owner in a completely different line of work that can describe the same scenario; and I suspect that every small business owner can tell some version of this or a similar tale.  Here’s the point:  we won’t be able to grow ourselves out of this depression until we can pay off some of the debt burden that we’re saddled with.

Somehow, the politicians (and the media) have the strange idea that small businesses are “reluctant” to invest and to hire new people. They think that all we need is the right “stimulus.” The latest platitudes and lip service from the pandering politicians of the Potomac comes in the form of a $30 billion fund to encourage regional banks to lend to creditworthy small businesses (see the Business Week article). Poor Richard wonders just who that would be. Wake up! It’s not reluctance that is the problem, it’s resources. I am very skeptical that the small business economy can be “transformed” by simply flipping a magical economic switch and not the least bit convinced that there is yet any understanding of the importance of the small business segment of the economy among those who ostensibly govern our nation.

Reluctance does come into play when it comes to taking on more debt, though. Most of us will never be as comfortable with debt as we may have been before the economic debacle. The good news is that the debt we currently have will one day be retired. The payments do eventually come to an end.  Somehow, some of us will manage to work ourselves out of this predicament; probably despite the feeble efforts of the politicians.  We’ll hold on  until we can find a little money to try the next best thing. And maybe that next best thing will work and we can make some money and then invest in new equipment and hire new employees.

Maybe we’ll even invest in new businesses . . . wonder how medical marijuana would grow in the basement of the old building on Poplar Street?

Life is still grand!

3 Responses to The Capital Trap

  1. jim says:

    It’s worse than a recession, we all know this. So, is it a depression or something in between recession and depression? I’m depressed so there’s my answer. Very large corporations, global businesses have the ear of the Fed for obvious reasons. Small businesses are farther down the pyramid (food chain) along with the working stiffs who punch the clock. It’s that simple. Unless of course Americans really really get angry.

  2. MikeD says:

    Poor Richard, I just love your blog after discovering it this summer. Please keep it up, even if you do it from Debtors Prison (where I am hoping to also have web access).

    Here in Maryland, I find myself in the same sort of situation, but with much less overhead. I too love printing, am over 50, work independently doing Photoshop prep for a small group of graphic designers, getting their photos ready for press. These designers are doing less print work and more web-related stuff, so business has really dropped off this year. I think it is time to branch out into other areas, if I can just think of them.

    I don’t know where things are headed. This morning I actually fired up the old drum scanner and did a huge negative scan for a display banner!

  3. Ben says:

    Thanks for the interesting Printing Content.

    http://www.printerboy.com.au
    Printing – Printer – Prints

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