Confer Plastics has a very limited local customer base. Instead, our products are sold all across the country and around the world. Because of that, access to a convenient and affordable infrastructure is necessary for effectively moving our goods and acquiring the resources we need to manufacture them. That is one of the reasons we call North Tonawanda and Wheatfield home. The network of expressways within the Niagara Frontier - with the New York Thruway at its epicenter – is critical for our operations.
Making products as large as we do in the numbers that we do requires a lot of trailers. You can put only so many swimming pool ladders, kayaks, or docks on a truck. In 2011 we had nearly 9,000 shipments in full or partial trailers. With volume like that, the proposal by the Thruway Authority to increase the tolls for commercial traffic by 45% will be a killer.
Crunching the numbers and analyzing our various destinations and sources, the Authority’s plan will cost us an extra $200,000 per year. That number is far from modest, which is the description given to the increase by Authority officials.
In some cases, we will have to eat the added costs, which is likely for our proprietary line in 2013 (no business adequately can plan for uncertainty, especially when the transformation of that uncertainty into a certainty is entirely at the whim of a governing body). Seeing profits fall in a bland economy is a toxic development.
In other cases, we will pass the cost on to our customer, who will pass it on to theirs (continuing a downward spiral that would begin when the truckers pass their newfound costs onto us). This is where it gets really dangerous. This is a small world. Purchasing managers have access to countless manufacturers. When deciding which one to choose, they base their decisions on quality, service, and, above all, pricing. Because of consumers making their buying decisions on a few dollars and maybe even a few pennies, corporate buyers do the same. They look at two factors: The cost of the product itself and the cost to get it from Point A to Point B. Although the product itself may be comparatively inexpensive, high shipping costs can bring an end to the deal, because that cost has to go somewhere (it gets embedded in the selling price of the product). In a state like New York where it’s already too expensive to produce competitively-priced goods (long-time readers are familiar with New York’s cost burden to Confer Plastics -- $740,000 over and above what our competitors pay for the same), the $200,000 spike in shipping costs will cause some of our clients to look at Ohio or Pennsylvania.
We’re not alone in this regard. Look at the stories pouring in to media sources throughout the state from trucking firms, farmers and manufacturers far larger than we. They all speak of financial woes that would befall their businesses were the Thruway Authority to make good on their plans. Some of the smaller businesses will actually collapse under the weight of the new tolls.
There have been well-attended public hearings, numerous letters to the editors, activism from trade groups and vocal opposition from elected officials about this issue. Those are all perfect means by which to fight the fees, but they may not be enough. The Thruway Authority, like all authorities, is an independent business function of the state beholden to no one (the state’s courts have even said as much). There’s a very good chance that they might pull the trigger.
So, what can we do? In the event that they do pass the 45% toll increase, I challenge all truck drivers, farmers, and manufacturers with their own fleets to do something I call “Fight 45 With 45”. Under this means of revolt, trucks using the Thruway would drive side by side, never exceeding 45 miles per hour and never allowing anyone to pass. Since this is 20 miles below the speed limit and 25 to 30 miles below the speed most people drive, it would put a serious bottleneck in the Thruway and would serve to create great frustration for tens of thousands of motorists. It would be done indefinitely until Thruway officials relented (which they would under such pressure).
Truck drivers (and New York business owners, for that matter) have long been regarded as mavericks, their own men, so I wouldn’t put it past any of them to “Fight 45 With 45”. Hopefully we don’t get to that point, but if we do, this modern method of passive resistance may be the cure for what ails the private sector in the Empire State.
Who’s with me?
Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column originally ran in the 27 August 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers