Ditch the hype
HASTINGS — Jeff Guenther of Hastings Manufacturing said he thought he might not be right for the Internet marketing panel discussion at World Trade Week last week, but local representatives of the U.S. Department of Commerce did not agree.
Much of the panel discussion focused on the use of social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to reach markets overseas.
That didn’t matter to Tom Maguire, director of the Grand Rapids office of the U.S. Department of Commerce/International Trade Administration and U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service.
“Hastings Manufacturing is a company that has done extremely well by addressing the quickly changing world in which they do business,” said Maguire. “They are not waiting for business to come to them.”
Both Maguire and Kendra Kuo, senior international trade specialist in Maguire’s office, have worked with Hastings over the past few years to help build its export business.
Hastings Manufacturing is “a company that’s been around almost 100 years, but they have managed to stay current with the times,” said Kuo. Guenther, she added, “has been very aggressive in pursuing international markets, with their senior management, and I thought he would be a good example of a manufacturer who’s done some work on their website to find more sales overseas.”
Kuo, who was chair of the committee that planned World Trade Week activities, said Hastings Manufacturing has “an interactive website in a couple different languages. They’ve just been a good example of a Michigan manufacturer that’s been able to access several international markets.”
As many motorheads know, Hastings Manufacturing makes piston rings, and has for a long time. However, the company nearly disappeared a few years ago.
In September 2005, the original Hasting Manufacturing was in bankruptcy. That December, its assets were bought by a consortium led by Anderson Group in Bloomfield Hills. Other owners of the now privately held company are Melling Engine Parts in Jackson and some members of the management team now in place at Hastings.
Guenther, who has been with Hastings for 25 years, has high praise for Fred Cook, who now heads the company, and for Anderson Group. It is not the type of investment company that buys a distressed business and flips it to another buyer; instead, it tends to “buy and hold,” said Guenther.
Guenther said the Hastings Manufacturing strategy now is to make only piston rings. It used to also make oil filters and Caseite Motor Honey, among other things. In its production of piston rings, Hastings does it all — from taking in raw materials to shipping the finished product. The company employs about 200 people in the town of Hastings, and still occupies its near-100-year-old plant. The company does not reveal its annual sales revenues.
Guenther said many people presume that any company in Michigan making piston rings is in danger, in view of the shrinkage of the auto industry. The reality is that Hastings piston rings go into almost every kind of internal combustion engine, from aircraft to Stihl string trimmers. Only about 3 percent of production is for automobile engines.
While Hastings now only makes piston rings, Guenther said, “We offer over 10,000 unique applications, where our major competitors have a fraction of that — maybe 10 percent of that.”
“Yeah, we’re insane,” joked Guenther. “People say, ‘You guys are crazy,’ but when you only do one thing, you really have to be that much superior.”
One great strength American products still have overseas is the quality, according to Guenther. The distributors he deals with in Africa, Asia and Latin America “like to buy American products,” he said, adding that there is an expression commonly heard overseas: “An American product is a quality product.”
The problem, he said, is that some foreign-made products are much cheaper than their American counterparts. “If you can have an American product that is competitively priced, you’re going places. And that’s what we’ve been successful at,” said Guenther.
In March, the company’s subsidiary in China was recognized as a Top Ten Automotive Parts Brand by a panel that included government representatives, educational institutions, the Society of Automotive Engineers China, the China Auto Parts Association and trade media.
While Hastings Manufacturing doesn’t use social networking websites, it does have a strong Internet presence. Everyone today turns automatically to the Internet when looking for information, said Guenther, so Hastings has “hundreds of key words” to lead searches to its website. Type in “piston rings” and Hastings Manufacturing pops up near the top of the list. Type in the name of one of its competitors and a Hastings ad appears, too.
The website is designed to provide concise, factual information to people ranging from high-level automotive engineers at General Motors, down to the racing fanatic who is overhauling an engine.
Guenther said he might get up to five Internet inquiries a day, from places as distant as New Zealand or Poland, with a question about Hastings piston rings.
The company set up a live chat feature on its website, although it is not staffed 24/7 like those some large companies offer. A technical question will get an answer from a real engineer, however.
Hastings Manufacturing does not use the free translation service available on Google, preferring to do it in-house. Guenther said English is still the key language of business around the globe, but his company offers its website in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
In the world of piston rings, a marketing website must be simple and specific. “Make sure you put on there what people need. Make sure you know exactly what people are looking for,” Guenther said. “The biggest mistake is having the whole website being a pitch. They don’t want to be sold. They want information.”
Guenther said a website alone isn’t the answer to doing business overseas.
“We still believe in face-to-face relationships,” said Guenther. The company has sales offices in Mexico and Brazil, and both sales and manufacturing facilities in China.
About once a month Guenther travels to one or more of his overseas markets. Today, he is en route to South Africa.
“I’ve been in international sales a long time,” said Guenther. “Relationships are huge; trust is important. You can’t really build that through e-mails or social media.”
People he works with in Africa have told him that Hastings Manufacturing is one of the few non-African companies that spend the time to go there, “and they like that and they respect that.”
Although Hastings does business in Europe, Guenther’s presentation about the company does not indicate a lot of activity in England or France, and people wonder about that, he said. He answers that business is like fishing: You go where the fish are biting. In England and France, “there’s not a lot of fish biting there. The fish are biting in Brazil, in South Africa, Saudi Arabia. … That’s where I’m going.”
Guenther said the U.S. Department of Commerce office in Grand Rapids offers a great deal of help to West Michigan companies that want to export overseas.
“They’ll hook you up with officials” in other countries and even help arrange meetings there, he said.
“It’s a very slick service for a business that doesn’t have an extensive sales or research” department, he said. The results aren’t guaranteed to be “a marriage made in heaven,” he added, “but it gets you going and it’s pretty economical.”