WILLIAM J. BRUNS, JR.
Precision Worldwide, Inc.
In late May 2004, Hans Thorborg, the general manager of the German plant of Precision
Worldwide, Inc. (PWI), scheduled an afternoon meeting with his sales manager, accountant, and
development engineer to discuss the introduction by the French firm Henri Poulenc (a competitor) of
a plastic ring substitute for the steel retaining rings presently used in certain machines sold by
Precision Worldwide. The plastic ring, new to the market, not only had a much longer life than the
PWI steel ring but also apparently had a much lower manufacturing cost. Thorborg’s problem
stemmed from PWI’s large quantity of steel rings on hand and the substantial inventory of special
steel that had been purchased for their manufacture. After a thorough survey, he had found that the
special steel could not be sold, even for scrap; the total book value of these inventories exceeded
For nearly 90 years PWI had manufactured industrial machines and equipment for sale in
numerous countries. The particular machines involved in Thorborg’s dilemma were made only at
the company’s plant in Frankfurt, Germany, which employed more than one thousand people. The
different models were priced between $18,900 and $28,900 and were sold by a separate sales
organization. Repair and replacement parts, which accounted for a substantial part of the company’s
business, were sold separately. As with the steel rings, these parts could often also be used on similar
machines manufactured by competitors. The company’s head office was in Toledo, Ohio, U.S.A. In
general, plants outside the United States were allowed considerable leeway in administering their
own affairs; the corporate headquarters, however, was easily accessible by telephone, email, or
during executive visits to the individual plants.
In the late 1990s, competition had increased. Japanese manufacturers, with low-priced spare
parts, had successfully entered the field. Other companies had appeared with lower-quality and
lower-priced machines. There was little doubt that future competition would be more intense.
The steel ring manufactured by PWI had a normal life of about two months, depending upon the
extent to which the machine was used. A worn-out ring could be replaced in a few seconds, and
although different models of the machines required from two to six rings, the rings were usually
replaced individually as they wore out.
The sales manager, Gerhard Henk, had learned of the new plastic ring shortly after its appearance
and had immediately asked when PWI would be able to supply them, particularly for sale to
customers in France, where Henri Poulenc was the strongest competition faced by PWI. Bodo
Eisenbach, the development engineer, estimated that the plastic rings could be produced by midSeptember. The necessary tools and equipment could be obtained for about $7,500. Eisenbach had
initially raised the issue of the steel-ring inventories that would not be used up by September. Henk
believed that if the new ring could be produced at a substantially lower cost than the steel ones, the
inventory problem was irrelevant; he suggested that the inventory be sold, or if that was impossible,
thrown away. The size of the inventory, however, caused Thorborg to question this suggestion. He
recalled that the size of the inventory resulted from having to order the highly specialized steel in
large amounts so that a mill would be willing to handle the order.
Henk reported that Henri Poulenc was said to be selling the plastic ring at about the same price as
the PWI steel ring; since the production cost of the plastic ring would be much less than the steel, he
emphasized that PWI was ignoring a good profit margin if it did not introduce a plastic ring. As the
meeting concluded, it was decided that the company should prepare to manufacture the new ring as
soon as possible but that until the inventories of the old model and the steel were exhausted, the
plastic ring would only be sold in those markets where it was offered by competitors. It was
expected that the new rings would not be produced by any company other than Henri Poulenc for
some time, and this meant that no more than 10% of Precision Woldwide’s markets would be
Shortly after this, Patrick Corrigan, from the parent company in Ohio, visited Frankfurt. During a
review of company problems, the plastic-ring question was discussed. Although the ring was only a
small part of the finished machines, Corrigan was interested in the problem because the company
wanted to establish policies for the production and pricing of all such parts that, in total, accounted
for a substantial portion of PWI’s revenues. Corrigan agreed that the company should proceed with
plans for its production and try to find some other use for the steel; he then said, “If this does not
seem possible, I would, of course, expect you to use this material and produce the steel rings.”
A few days after Corrigan’s visit, both Eisenbach and Henk came in to see Thorborg. Eisenbach
came because he felt that since tests had indicated that the plastic ring had at least four times the
wearing properties of the steel ring, it would completely destroy demand for the steel ring. He
understood, however, that the price of the competitive ring was high, and he felt that the decision to
sell the plastic ring only in markets where it was sold by competitors was a good one. He observed,
“In this way we will probably be able to continue supplying the steel ring until stocks, at least of
processed parts, are used up.”
Henk still strongly opposed sales of any steel rings once the plastic ones became available. If steel
rings were sold in some areas, he argued, while plastic rings were being sold elsewhere, customers
who purchased steel rings would eventually find out. This would harm the sale of Precision
Worldwide machines—the selling price of which was many times that of the rings. He produced
figures to show that if the selling price of both rings remained at $1,350.00 per hundred, the
additional profit from the plastic rings (manufactured at a cost of $279.65 per hundred versus the
$1,107.90 per hundred for steel rings) would more than recover the value of the steel inventory, and
do so within less than a year at present volume levels. Thorborg refused to change the decision of the
previous meeting but agreed to have another discussion within a week.
Anticipating this third meeting and also having Corrigan’s concern in mind, Thorborg obtained
the data displayed in Table A from the cost accounting department on the cost of both plastic and
Thorborg also learned that the inventory of special steel had cost $110,900 and represented
enough material to produce approximately 34,500 rings. Assuming that sales continued at the
current rate of 690 rings per week, without any further production, some 15,100 finished rings would
be left on hand by mid-September. Thorborg then recalled that during the next two or three months
the plant would not be operating at capacity; during slack periods, the company had a policy of
employing excess labor (at about 70% of regular wages) on various make-work projects rather than
laying workers off. He wondered if it would be a good idea to use some of this labor to convert the
steel inventory into rings during this period.
100 Plastic Rings
100 Steel Rings
aOverhead was allocated on the basis of direct labor cost.
It was estimated that the variable
overhead costs included here were largely fringe benefits related to direct labor and amounted to
80¢ per direct labor dollar or about 40% of the departmental amounts.
What action should Hans Thorborg take? Why?
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