(This post originally appeared on Entrepreneur)
A strange news story caught my attention this week. Apparently, Xerox is going to soon start manufacturing hand sanitizer.
According to a statement, the company will be leveraging its manufacturing capabilities in Toronto and Rochester, N.Y., and its “in-house materials expertise” so that it can make about 140,000 gallons of the stuff by June, with its first deliveries expected to occur by the end of the month.
The company’s not just producing hand sanitizer. It’s also getting into the ventilator business. Earlier this month, a partnership with a technology firm was announced that will help Xerox manufacture a specific type of ventilator and monitor for hospitals and emergency-response units.
I get that Xerox wants to do its part to help fight the COVID-19 virus, but hand sanitizer? Ventilators? This seems very inconsistent with what Xerox does.
That’s because when you think of Xerox, these products don’t immediately come to mind. The 114-year-old company is mostly known as the maker of printers and office equipment and have morphed into providing workplace technologies and services for process- and document-management. So what exactly do hand sanitizer and ventilators have to do with all this?
Nothing. And everything.
The company says that it wants to do its part to fight COVID-19. “Essentials like hand sanitizer will continue to be in high demand,” its CEO said in the statement. ““This is a time for every company, every person, to look at what they can do to help society,”
I don’t disbelieve that, and I applaud the company’s efforts. But I also think there’s something else going on — something even better for Xerox, its employees and all the other suppliers, customers and partners that rely on the company for their livelihoods.
Like all of us, Xerox is facing an economic downturn in its business. I don’t know how significant, but I’m going to bet that their managers are as challenged to find new sources of revenue as any small-business owner. Challenging times need out-of-the box ideas. Leaders are forced to make difficult decisions, innovate, try new things, make changes — even if those changes disrupt current models.
I saw this countless times during the 2008-2009 recession. Many of my best clients used that opportunity to reevaluate their businesses, decide what was truly making them money and what was not worth the effort. During those times, those same leaders tried new ideas, launched new product lines, diversified their offerings and even started doing things completely unrelated to their existing business. They didn’t do these things because they wanted to. They did these things because they had to. Downturns have that effect.
I think that’s what’s going on with Xerox.
If you asked their executives a year ago if they planned to get into the hand sanitizer or ventilator business, they would react as if you’d lost your mind. But now these businesses might turn out to be potential longer-term revenue streams. Who knows?
Hand sanitizer might be the foundation of a new strategy to make and sell other office-related supplies that could be positioned to dovetail nicely with Xerox’s workplace offerings. The manufacture of ventilators will certainly keep the company’s workforce engaged and thinking during these slower times, and who knows what new techniques for making office equipment will be discovered while in the process of making hospital equipment? And hey … with Xerox’s existing infrastructure, maybe manufacturing ventilators is more profitable than manufacturing printers. This could be an entirely new venture. Again, who knows?
Xerox is going to find out.
Of course, if, like Xerox, you’re able to contribute something to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, then jump on board. But if your business is facing a downturn, now is the time to also do what Xerox is doing: innovate. Try new things. Sell new products. Take a few chances. This may not be a choice. It may be necessity. But don’t fret. It’s how great companies survive these times and position themselves for future growth.