Survey Shows Mixed Feelings on Outsourcing

Our joint survey on contracting-out production, R&D and other functions finds a lot of mixed feelings.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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Outsourcing provides options for food and beverage manufacturers to grow their businesses, fill niche product lines and execute many functions more efficiently — from production to product development R&D to maintenance. Yet, new survey findings indicate outsourcing is not favored by all; and for many, it has left a bad taste on their company palates. 

Food Processing and Grant Thornton LLP, the audit, tax and business advisory firm, collaborated on this survey, taken in August and September of 2008. Some analysis was provided by consultants MPI Group. There were 115 respondents of all sizes and from all segments of the food industry (see methodology for details).

We hope if offers insights to help you evaluate your own outsourcing prospects and challenges.

Outsourcing production

As measured by sales volume, nearly one-third of food and beverage manufacturers (32 percent) indicate that none of their production is outsourced. Another 54 percent report that one-quarter or less of their sales volume is outsourced. Just 11 percent have outsourced a majority of their production and 6 percent outsource all production.

Firms that don’t outsource often do so to maintain control of their product. As one executive says, “By not outsourcing, we control all elements of our products, quality, cost, research, etc.”

Another offers: “I believe that we can assure the quality of our products by not outsourcing.” He goes on to indicate his firm currently uses some outsourced warehousing but “are in the process of remedying that.”

Among food and beverage firms that do outsource some production (“production outsourcers”), a majority (58 percent) indicates they do so to “increase/develop production capacity.” One satisfied food executive explains, “Contracts with outsourcing contributed to our success of expansion to gain market in other areas.”

Another adds, “We have outsourced in the past to find capacities that match the volume. For example, [our] organic business is small, therefore smaller contractors can handle that much more efficiently, and we have been generally satisfied with the results.”

Other top reasons for outsourcing production were to gain “access to technology/equipment” (46 percent) and to “lower costs” (37 percent).

Most firms that outsource production rely on more than one vendor: 40 percent of food and beverage manufacturers use two to three firms, 13 percent use four to five firms, and 31 percent use more than five partners.

Among all respondents, the dollars spent on outsourced production are likely to increase among 43 percent of survey respondents; 7 percent indicate it will increase significantly; 51 percent report no change in the volume of outsourcing and 6 percent predict it will decrease.

Among only those already outsourcing, 53 percent will increase the dollar volume of outsourced production and 40 percent will maintain current levels.

Looking ahead to 2009, 41 percent of survey respondents will increase outsourcing and 49 percent indicate no change in volume of outsourcing. Among current production outsourcers, 46 percent will increase the volume of outsourced production and 41 percent will keep it the same.

Production outsourcing does not necessarily solve production ills; in fact, it can create a variety of problems for food and beverage manufacturers.

Precisely one-quarter of firms that outsource indicate their most significant problems are higher costs; another 25 percent cite poor product. Another 17 percent said problems involve late deliveries and/or poor lead times.

“Outsourcing brings a loss of product control, dilutes/eliminates brand integrity and opens the door to product recalls and/or contamination,” says one food and beverage executive.

Yet others are “very satisfied.” “[Nearly all] product is delivered when requested. Overall quality is consistent and meets specification requirements. Suppliers are very cooperative and easy to work with. [We] have had very few problems,” wrote one.

Another executive says his company is so happy with its contractor that he “intends to move all of our production to them.”

Many food and beverage manufacturers are implementing best practices to better manage their contract manufacturers, even when they no longer control actual production.

Common best practices in place at a majority of outsourcers include:

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