Since last fall, when it sank to a record low against the euro, the dollar has been stuck in a torpor, showing few signs of life. And no one knows when the greenback--which also has been hovering at a 30-year low against the Canadian dollar and a 26-year low against the British pound--will rebound. That's bad news for many American businesses, especially those that collect revenue in dollars but buy supplies and pay salaries overseas. It's not all doom and gloom, of course--some exporters are experiencing their biggest gains in years, a phenomenon that was largely responsible for the sizable GDP increase in the third quarter of 2007. But other companies have had to relocate operations, switch to U.S. suppliers, and cut costs wherever they could. Here's how four companies are dealing with the fallout of the currency crunch--some more successfully than others.
Selling French wine to the French
The company: WineCommune, Oakland, California
The problem: WineCommune, which was No. 35 on the Inc. 500 last year, sells imported and American wine, mostly online. Wine from France--which is 50 percent of its inventory--has become much more expensive, and the company hasn't passed all of those cost increases on to its customers, says CEO Michael Stajer. WineCommune's sales doubled in 2007, to $17 million, and margins are up--but not as much as they would have been had the dollar stayed strong.
The fix: WineCommune has limited its losses by hedging. Stajer entered into a forward contract in fall 2006, locking in an exchange rate when the euro was worth about $1.25. When he actually bought the wine the following spring, the euro had risen to $1.36, so he saved about 8 percent.
In one of the stranger twists to come out of the currency crunch, customers in France are turning to the States to buy French wine. In fact, the very people from whom WineCommune originally bought the wine are buying it back. In France, a negociant acts as the middleman between the vintner and retailer, in this case WineCommune. As negociants have sold out their own stock, which they cannot refill until next season, they have started buying some of the wine they originally sold to WineCommune. Even with shipping costs, and even with WineCommune as an additional middleman taking profits of its own, the negociants can still sell the wine at a profit in France.
The French aren't the only oenophiles who have discovered that bargain prices can be found in the U.S. Sales to foreign markets have more than tripled; they now account for about 7 percent of the company's revenue. The company is hiring a full-time sales rep for the Asian market (the dollar has fallen against a number of Asian currencies), and Stajer says it's not hard to imagine opening an office in China in 12 months, to satisfy the thirsts of newly affluent Chinese and reach out to other Asian markets. Stajer says now is the perfect time to build up relationships with Asian distributors.
Getting a break from vendors
The company: SaltWorks, Woodinville, Washington
The problem: The company peddles everything salt: pink kitchen salt from the Himalayas, bath salt from the Dead Sea, and even 24 varieties that come in a bamboo box. To buy the stuff, SaltWorks does business in about a dozen currencies. The company is doing well--revenue nearly doubled in 2007, to about $7 million. But profits dropped 5 percent, partly because of the weak dollar, according to co-founder Naomi Novotny.
The fix: Novotny says SaltWorks' European vendors are sympathetic and have been willing to renegotiate contracts. One vendor even agreed to not boost prices because SaltWorks couldn't afford it. Most of the company's vendors have been flexible about payment schedules as well, which has allowed SaltWorks to lock in more favorable exchange rates. "If the euro is really high, we'll ask if we can hold off a couple of days or a week until it goes back down a bit," says Novotny. "Even if the difference is pennies, when you're dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars, every last one counts." If the euro doesn't move in SaltWorks' favor, it eats the loss and pays the vendor, rather than squandering goodwill. But the weak currency has still eroded profits, and SaltWorks is considering raising prices this year.
Hedging up to a year in advance
The company: People to People Ambassador Programs, Spokane, Washington
The problem: People to People sends tour groups around the U.S. and the world, and its customers typically reserve their spaces--and lock in their prices--months in advance. As a result, by the time an excursion begins, the real cost of the trip to People to People could have increased 10 percent or more because of exchange rates.
The fix: The company hedges its currency expenditures 12 to 18 months in advance. People to People consults with a foreign exchange advisory firm, HiFX, about the economic factors affecting currency prices and the optimal times to buy. For the 2008 travel season, People to People first started hedging in January 2007, when the euro was worth about $1.30. The company entered into several other forward contracts over the year. In early summer, consultants at HiFX advised People to People to finish its hedging soon instead of waiting until the end of 2007, as the company had planned. The experts on the foreign exchange desk at People to People's bank said the same thing. People to People took the advice and was glad for it: By the end of the year the euro had risen to $1.47. But even with hedging, the weak dollar was a major factor behind the company's 10 percent price hikes this year. Luckily, domestic trips have been on the rise, thanks in part to the exchange rate, and that has helped bolster profits.
Seeking American suppliers
The company: Rainbow Packaging, Chandler, Arizona
The problem: Rainbow is a distributor; the company buys packaging machines from two German suppliers and resells them to customers in the U.S., including Hallmark Cards. CEO Wes Henriksen has had to raise prices as the machines, which encase products like DVDs and stationery in plastic packaging, have become more expensive for him to buy. The calls from customers started slowing down 11 months ago, when the euro hit $1.35--today it's $1.48. The machines have always cost more than their American counterparts, but now they cost close to $100,000 more--far too expensive to compete, Henriksen says.
The fix: It was an eerily quiet year for Rainbow, which saw revenue fall from about $3 million in 2006 to $275,000 in 2007--or, as Henriksen says, "$3 million to retired." Though he avoided laying off either of his two employees, he had to dig into cash reserves to pay their salaries. Toward the end of last year, Rainbow began buying packaging machines from domestic manufacturers. "It's like starting from scratch," says Henriksen. "It's 10 years out the window." Nonetheless, he is adamant about continuing to work with his German suppliers, whose product, he says, is superior, and will find its market once the dollar rebounds.