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How MHEDA’s Board of Directors Updated its 2020 Material Handling Business Trends

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board opted to update its existing trends rather than release trends for next year. 
By Mike Wall, Liz Richards and Steve Guglielmo 

In a typical year, the MHEDA Board of Directors releases its list of Material Handling Business Trends that will be shaping the material handling industry in the upcoming year following its Summer Executive Committee Meeting. However, as we all know, 2020 has been far from a typical year. With the unprecedented global threat of COVID-19 continuing to impact our day-to-day lives and wreak havoc on our businesses, this year the Executive Committee decided to update its existing 2020 trends to better reflect the environment we find ourselves in, rather than forecasting trends for 2021 and beyond. As we approach the end of 2020, the Board will reevaluate these trends and provide trends for next year at that time.  

We were able to sit down with the 2020 MHEDA Chairman of the Board Mike Wall and MHEDA CEO Liz Richards to discuss this unique process and the final results. The full list of updated 2020 Business Trends can be found on page XX as well as on mheda.org. 

The MHEDA Journal: This year, for the first time, the EC Meeting was held virtually. How did this change the approach and process of planning the material handling business trends? 

Liz Richards: Cancelling the in-person was painful as this meeting is an important time for members of MHEDA’s Executive Committee to come together and dig deeply into some of the issues facing the industry. Obviously with the pandemic, the world turned upside down so in addition to the meeting structure changing, so did life as we know it and the future became even more unpredictable. In spite of these unforeseen changes, the upside was that we were able to include more staff in the virtual meeting which provided additional perspectives and insight. 

Mike Wall: Honestly, it was tough. I’ve been on the EC for a few years now, so I’ve had time to observe the process and participate in the creation of the trends. It is a very collaborative effort. It starts as a discussion of current events and over the course of hours of conversation the trends emerge. Eventually, we identify the really critical factors impacting our industry and then refine the statement. When you’re working virtually, you lose a lot of the back and forth and “side” conversations that would normally lead to further discourse. That said, this year we had the pandemic “elephant in the room,” so even without face-to-face interaction, our discussion was lively. 

TMJ: The EC opted to update the 2020 trends and then reevaluate the trends at the end of the year and release new 2021 trends. Can you discuss this decision? 

LR: Because everything surrounding the pandemic was (and is!) so fluid, none of us felt comfortable titling these trends as “2021.” So much will undoubtedly change between now and the start of next year that we felt it would be a disservice if we didn’t take the time to review the trends and make any necessary modifications. The upcoming election was also discussed as something that will impact businesses in the coming year. 

MW: Just as all of us are dealing with in our own businesses, the events of 2020 seem to constantly move the goal posts. It’s hard to plan, whether in your own business or as it relates to MHEDA, when it seems that every week there is news that can alter the course of the economy. Given this shifting landscape, we decided it would be best to reevaluate the trends once more information was available. 

TMJ: Typically, the trends are an all-encompassing and very forward-looking group of topics. The updated 2020 trends were, understandably, a little bit more narrowly focused and short-term. Do you still believe now (in September) that COVID is the most important issue facing our members today, as it was in July? How do you think this will impact our businesses long-term? 

LR: COVID was the impetus that caused many of the issues facing businesses this year i.e., remote work, safety in the workplace, supply chain disruptions and opportunities, customer viability, remote selling, cash flow and more. Social unrest has also been a factor and continues to emerge as a trend that must be addressed. This is what led to the EC defining the importance of diversity and inclusion.  

MW: I still believe that our reaction to COVID as a country (government oversight/restrictions/variations by state/etc.) is the most important factor in how we move forward. I am hopeful that the election, no matter who wins, will put some of the drama behind us. Without COVID being used as a political bludgeon, maybe we can look at the big picture and get everyone back to work. 

TMJ: Was there any element of this year’s new planning process that you anticipate will remain going forward, even during non-pandemic times? 

LR: With any forced change, comes opportunity. We will likely find a way to be more inclusive of staff in future EC meetings, regardless of the meeting format. The MHEDA staff gained better insight into the thought processes and conversations that led to the definition of certain trends and correspondingly, added valuable opinions from an association management perspective. Enhancing the collaboration will lead to more idea generation and buy-in. 

MW: We learn from every meeting we have, and we have such a great staff at MHEDA that each new lesson learned gets incorporated into future agendas. Thus, every year when new members join the Board the lessons learned are built upon. My fervent hope is that future Boards don’t have to meet virtually! 

TMJ: Typically, MHEDA members use the next year’s trends in their own company’s strategic planning process. Do you believe that the “updated 2020 trends” will still be useful in that regard or should members wait to incorporate the 2021 trends when they are released? How different do you anticipate the 2021 trends will look? 

LR: In reviewing these trends, I don’t think any of them will go away completely and some may become more predominant next year. There are none on this list that will not remain relevant. There may, however, be more trends identified and potentially added as business conditions begin to change and hopefully, improve! 

MW: Really no way to tell at this point. Given the fluidity of the current environment, it’s very difficult to make plans. I think the 2020 trends will be very relevant for the next six months and that’s about as far forward as anyone can predict. 

TMJ: There are elements of the COVID-19 pandemic that have been politicized, possibly amplified by the fact that this is an election year. Did that impact the discussion at all? 

LR: We try to keep from politicizing any MHEDA discussions but for sure the outcome of the election will impact the business community and society in general. This is another reason why we feel it’s important to review these again at year-end. 

MW: It was certainly discussed as it relates to governmental decisions, both nationally and by the states, but I wouldn’t say it impacted our conclusions regarding the Business Trends. 

TMJ: We’ve discussed in the past the importance of having a diverse cross-section of industry segments and geography represented. Was that amplified this year as different parts of the country experienced this in different ways and different times? 

LR: One thing we always do in advance of the EC meeting is survey the members as well as the board, so all industry segments can share the short and long-term trends that are most impacting to them. This year, the focus was definitely more short-term since there are so many unknown factors. It’s difficult to generalize which industry segments were more impacted but there were definitely some differences. For example, the members in the systems segment, were seeing increasing demands for automation. Those in the forklift industry were feeling the impact of new equipment sales decreasing. And depending on the customer bases being served, it was all over the board. Food and beverage remained a hot market but when meat packing plants were closing, the members servicing them felt the sting. 

MW: Absolutely. With so many people working from home and skeleton crews trying to run operations, the “systems” folks in our industry have been very busy because companies need to continue operations with fewer people. At the same time, if half your workforce is at home, you don’t need as many forklifts. It’s great that we do have such a diverse group on our Board so that we get all perspectives. 

TMJ: Any other important details you think MHEDA members should know or any last message you’d like to leave them with? 

LR: It was apparent that the members of MHEDA were finding increased value from their association and they let us know how much they appreciated the information we were sharing. First it was the essential business documentation, then it was the PPP and how to navigate through those complexities. MHEDA-NET groups were so grateful to have those built in “sounding boards” so they could reach out to one another for help and guidance. Those who are fully engaged in MHEDA saw the benefit of networking like never before. It’s unfortunate that a crisis like this demonstrated MHEDA’s value but it was a good reminder to fully utilize the benefits of an industry association. 

MW: The only advice I can give is to hang in there! As Mike Ditka once said (he may have co-opted this from someone else) “This too shall pass.”