Friday was my last day of work and I leave soon back to the US, so it is time to reflect on where I was just a few months ago and on what the next steps will be. At the time of my CASI application for the summer travel research grant, I had access to one garment manufacturer and some fascinating but broad theoretical questions. There is absolutely no substitute for fieldwork to figure out what is actually going on. What does a purchase order look like? What signals does a manufacturer get that business from a particular client is ripe for marketing or pending decline? What does a merchandiser actually do?
Coming into my pre-dissertation work, I did know that I was more interested in the front end of manufacturing – communication with the buyer. This interest continues. Luckily, though, my boss had the foresight to make sure that I spent enough time with production to understand their processes and issues. He arranged visits to two other factories to study their production models, which led to an important breakthrough in my thinking. As in retail, there is no one-size-fits-all model of production. A factory manager must consider not only the capabilities of his workers and machines, but their organization according to production space, order quantity, and difficulty of operations. While a computer-aided cutting machine can slice plain cotton fabrics faster than large numbers of workers, it is not a sensible investment at a unit that specializes in knits (which will get stuck in the machine).
The same principle applies to the organization of merchandising and design teams. A strong design team can be a great way to chase new business. I studied one factory, however, who does well over half of their business with a single fast fashion brand. The buyer sends mostly tech packs, which contain detailed design instructions that can be interpreted without a designer. It is a risky for the manufacturer to have a client portfolio that is so imbalanced (what if the brand moves their orders to another factory?), but employing a dedicated customer service team for this particular client makes sense so long as the buyer continues to place large orders.
I now understand that even while my dissertation will not take a comparative focus, it would be foolish to spend too long at any single place. Basic processes are going to be the same at most companies, but strategies are not. Small, medium, and large businesses must make the kinds of investments that are suited to their capabilities and clients. I know not just from theory, but from owner interviews and production-floor experience that I need to gain experience at a business with the capacity to handle 25 or 50 clients, not 5 or 15. I understand the basic issues that a small manufacturer faces, but what problems arise as a business scales in size? Do they expand through M&A, vertical integration, or major loans and capital investments? These strategic decisions, in turn, will shed light on the options which are presented to owners and managers at small and mid-scale manufacturers. They will also have much better potential for theoretical innovation and a more general application.
As I wrap up, my pre-dissertation focus on processes and negotiations remains. I have, though, learned two very important things. The first is a basic view of what happens in garment manufacturing. The second is an understanding of how these processes and negotiations are informed by (a) the particular competency of a manufacturer and (b) particular specializations within the global competition for manufacturing. I am now finishing up applications to large funding agencies to find support for my return to India.
I am grateful to CASI for supporting an incredibly engaging summer.