Recently, I was in New England, and visited a traditional Shaker village that become a museum after the last Shaker living there died.
(One of the big requirements of being a Shaker is that you remain completely celibate. Today, there are only four Shakers left in the world, but that’s a whole different column.)
The Shakers were known for designing and building high-quality furniture. As I walked through rooms full of their simple, sturdy work, I was struck by the level of craftsmanship in everything they created. The Shakers had a motto that I found beautiful and profound: “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.”
Shaker furniture, if it were still being created today, would be considered high-end. The level of time and care that went into each individual piece sits in direct conflict with modern-day manufacturing practices.
I’ve been hearing for years that the quality of American products has dropped. One reason, I’ve been told, is that the American worker became spoiled and lazy. But I see it another way.
When I was young, products made in Japan were near the bottom of the food chain in price and quality. But then a funny thing happened. Japan invested in state-of-the-art equipment, employee training and quality components. Meanwhile, their American counterparts, sensing a huge competitive advantage, began to maximize profits and shareholder value. Instead of investing in quality, they acted as if their prized products were nothing but a giant ATM machine dispensing money.
A decade later, imports were stealing market share and building consumer trust. We have been playing catch-up ever since.
Today, the dynamic is a little different. Various low-quality imports are coming from every corner of the world, and U.S. manufacturers are answering this by moving their operations overseas. This lowers labor costs, cuts corners on quality and results in more profit for every dollar spent. However, demand is still steadily eroding.
Is there a better way compete? I think so.
Consumers are willing to pay a premium for high-end, branded goods. Mercedes and BMWs do a healthy business today despite their hefty price tag. Coach bags are hugely popular, even though you can buy a lower- quality purse for a tenth of the cost. The list goes on and on. These manufacturers have seen enormous success, not by cutting corners, but by creating a superior product backed with strong marketing and customer service.
The Shakers are gone, and while I may not agree with their theology, I try, with the resources I have, to produce a magazine that embodies the spirit of their ideas on quality.
Founding a religion based on celibacy is probably not a good business model. But creating strong products with pride and dedication in your work is the only way to compete in today’s market.