Survey Shows Growth and Optimism in Manufacturing and Distribution

A survey of U.S. manufacturers and distributors from many industries shows they are optimistic, seeking opportunities for growth and sustainability.

Economic uncertainty is now an accepted reality, but industry leaders are not letting it hinder growth, according to CliftonLarsonAllen’s third annual survey of U.S. manufacturers and distributors. The Manufacturing and Distribution Outlook 2013 is a composite of opinions from hundreds of manufacturers and distributors across the country from many industries.

“The attitude and mindset of the leaders we surveyed focuses on capturing opportunities instead of dwelling on things that cannot be controlled,” says Erik Skie, manufacturing and distribution managing principal with CliftonLarsonAllen. “The industry has moved beyond the Great Recession and is now shaping its own future.”

The Value Triangle

The survey centers on key areas that are essential for healthy and sustainable manufacturing and distribution organizations. “The Value Triangle” includes four dimensions: financial, growth, execution, and leadership. Excellence in any of these areas can create bursts of short-term success. However, consistent attention to all four creates high performance organizations that can compete in the global marketplace.

The observations received from industry leaders related to these four areas.


  • While many parts of our economy are nowhere near pre-recession levels of performance, approximately 70% of respondents say they are at or above pre-recession levels of profitability.
  • Overall, respondents indicate that working capital requirements (including inventory) and availability of credit have not been deterrents to growth over the past two years.
  • Cash flow challenges at the largest original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have translated into extended payment terms for some suppliers.


  • More than 63% of respondents said they are currently exporting, while approximately 27% said they have not exported and do not plan to start in the next two years. Three percent said they plan to begin export activities in the next two years.
  • The majority of respondents said they have an industry concentration that accounts for more than 50% of their revenue base.
  • High quality products, flexibility to meet customer needs, and customer service continue to be the attributes most mentioned by respondents as their keys to success.


  • 60% of respondents indicated that their continuous improvement efforts target market pressures like costs, quality and on-time delivery.
  • 19% aim to increase capacity
  • 7% are targeting inventory reduction.
  • A shortage of skilled workers is an issue for more than half of survey respondents. Most say they are implementing workforce training, lean manufacturing and automation to counter this trend.


  • Since small to mid-sized manufacturing ownership is dominated by Baby Boomers, it would be safe to assume that many leadership changes are on the horizon.
  • 35% said they are expecting an ownership transition in the next five years.

Future outlook

A year ago, manufacturing and distribution leaders were reporting that economic uncertainty, rising health care costs, and rising production costs were foremost on their minds. Though not as strong as last year, uncertainty remains a top concern in 2013, and will likely become an accepted reality as global economies and governments continue to resolve longer-term structural issues.

“The rising concern with finding and retaining skilled workers can be seen as both a positive and a negative,” says Skie. “The need for skilled workers coincides with an expansion in manufacturing, but the inability to fill skilled positions could ultimately hold manufacturers back from their full growth potential.”

Click here to download Manufacturing and Distribution Outlook: Findings of a National Survey 2013 and Beyond