Any way you cut it, Black & Decker is still synonomous with the workbench. Asked to name a brand of power tool, almost two out of three consumers cite Black & Decker -- or roughly twice the number that cite the manufacturing company's nearest competitor.
These results from a recent brand-awareness survey conducted for National Home Center News, a trade journal, are yet another indication of the powerful grip Black & Decker exercises in the marketplace for workshop equipment. Nolan D. Archibald, president of Black & Decker Manufacturing Co., boasts: "We're still No. 1. We're still the leader."
But evidence is mounting that brand awareness is no longer enough to keep the manufacturer in the black. A wave of imported power tools has battered the company's share of the market. Turnover has shaken the senior management. Overhead has soared as Black & Decker's factories have run at barely half of capacity in recent years. And a bold effort to diversify into home appliances has proved more expensive and difficult than the company first imagined, industry observers contend.
These factors added up in 1985 to the worst year in recent memory for the Towson, Md., manufacturer. Black & Decker recorded a $158 million loss for the 12 months ended Sept. 29, compared with profits of $95 million the year before.
The losses included a $205 million write-off for a huge restructuring program of layoffs, plant closings and refurbishments designed to slim down Black & Decker. Even excluding the restructuring charges announced late last fall, earnings dropped 51 percent to $47 million.
The restructuring is only part of Black & Decker's strategy to recapture its past profitablity and high growth. The company has also embarked on a wide-ranging effort to promote and market more aggressively its lengthy list of products, from its traditional assortment of drills, sanders and jigsaws to a new range of household wares.
As part of this drive, Black & Decker is spending millions on market research, advertising, product innovation and improvements in its distribution. It spent $100 million in an ongoing, three-year promotional blitz to hawk its expanded line of home appliances.
"Marketing will become an increasingly important part of our company," said Archibald, a highly regarded veteran of the Beatrice Cos. who took B & D's chief operating post last summer. "We intend to become a very aggressive, market-driven company."
Archibald, 42, has his hands full. Compared with innovation and product development, marketing hasn't always been one of B & D's strong suits, industry observers said. Retailers, they said, have been known to complain that Black & Decker hasn't been aggressive enough in promoting their products.
The company was also slow to respond to the foreign competition, especially from Japan, which blanketed consumer outlets, such as hardware store and home centers, a few years ago with high-grade professional power tools normally sold through industrial outlets, according to Joseph F. San Angelo, national sales manager for the U.S. subsidiary of Makita Electric Works Ltd. This strategy, he said, has helped Makita to reach approximately $200 million in annual sales here, much at the expense of Black & Decker.
But the marketing challenge extends to a different part of the company as well. As a result of its 1984 purchase of General Electric's small-appliances division, Black & Decker is in the midst of one of the biggest corporate brand-name transformations in history.
The company has until the middle of next year to complete putting the Black & Decker name on a host of toasters, irons and other goods that for years have been sold under the GE logo. And it is pouring millions of dollars into acclimating consumers to the switch.
The jury is still out on the wisdom of the move. The last major diversification Black & Decker undertook -- into McCulloch chainsaws -- was a disaster. And some analysts, pointing to subsequent write-offs the company has had to take at former GE plants, believe the $300 million price tag was too high.
The real test will come after 1987, when, under the terms of the deal, Black & Decker will have to take the GE logo -- the top in the field -- off its goods.
"GE is one of the oldest brands in the electric appliance business," said Susan B. Bassin, senior vice president at King-Casey Inc., a Connecticut marketing-consulting firm. "It's just a tremdously powerful and pervasive name. To take that and try to translate it to another brand is a challenge. I've never seen anything like it."
To complicate matters, Bassin said, the housewares industry is much more crowded than the power-tools business Black & Decker has come to dominate. "The niche that Black & Decker was able to create for itself 30 years ago is already occupied by several companies," she said.
Yet Black & Decker is bullish on the move, in part because of the fabulous success of their first foray into housewares -- its own Dustbuster cordless vacuum cleaner. Company executives have also looked to branch out from power tools, where Black & Decker consumer products have saturated the field.
David S. Leibowitz, an analyst at American Securities Corp. in New York, said the GE purchase "was, in a sense, a tacit admission that the tools business was not growing as fast as it had previously."
Rather than make the change all at once, Black & Decker's strategy has been to switch brands on GE's roughly 150 products gradually. First to go were what Archibald calls the strongest products, such as the Spacemaker line of under-the-cabinet can openers, coffee makers and toaster ovens. Archibald said the transition is 50 percent complete and ahead of schedule.
The question is: Will consumers embrace a Black & Decker toaster with the same enthusiasm as they once did a GE toaster? The answer isn't in yet.
Archibald thinks they will and said the power of the Black & Decker name should extend into housewares. He said, for instance, that many women have bought Black & Decker tools as gifts for men and perceive its products as sturdy and reliable.
Others are more skeptical, including B & D's numerous competitors, many of which -- such as Sunbeam, Norelco and Hamilton Beach -- are aggressively seizing upon Black & Decker's turmoil with increased advertising and new products. Some predict that consumers will turn to their products when they find they can't replace their GE toasters.
Thomas J. Albani, president of Sunbeam's North American appliances division, said Black & Decker's GE purchase "was the best thing that ever happened to Sunbeam, and I think our other competitors believe the same thing."
Albani should know. He used to head GE's small-appliances division and went to work briefly at Black & Decker when it was sold. Now he takes great delight in tweaking his former employer's nose. "The combination of their learning a new business and our company bringing exciting new products in 1985 have caused us to gain market share in virtually every line we go head-to-head," Albani said. Examples he cited include hand mixers, toasters and the highly successful Oskar food processor.
Black & Decker executives acknowledge that they have lost ground in some housewares products, but say these are areas in which GE had seen decline before the Black & Decker buyout. Archibald won't talk market-share specifics, but as he tells it, the "grand transition" is proceeding successfully on the whole.
"We don't attribute any share loss to our brand-transition program," he said. "We think it has gone extremely well.".
However it pans out, the housewares expansion is inexorably changing the face of Black & Decker. Once exclusively devoted to tools, the company reported sales of $668 million from housewares in 1985, out of total sales of $1.7 billion. In addition to tools and appliances, the company also sells outdoor products, such as electric lawnmowers and hedge trimmers.
Black & Decker thinks its two major divisions go hand in hand, and Archibald speaks volubly about the vast potential for "synergy" between housewares and tools. The research and development techniques for cordless technology, a growing field, are similar for both sets of products, he said.
Archibald said the company plans to use its existing European power-tool distribution lines to continue its invasion of the small appliance market on the other side of the Atlantic. The invasion was launched in the fall when Black & Decker started selling household goods in England.
Finally, Black & Decker puts great store in the worldwide restructuring program it announced in November; its impact will be felt throughout the company. With 27 factories worldwide and more than 20,000 employes, the feeling was that the firm's overhead had grown out of whack with its production figures.
As a result, Black & Decker will phase out plants and workers, seek to reduce duplication and, in general, try to streamline a production process that had grown too decentralized in recent years.
Archibald said that at one time Black & Decker manufactured more than 100 different motors to drive its products. It now produces about 25, and he that should eventually shrink to a half-dozen as part of an effort to sell its products worldwide, rather than in specialized locations.
Though the $205 million price tag for the restructuring is hefty, nobody is doubting the need for dramatic steps. "It's something that had to be done," said Joel H. Krasner, an analyst with Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. "They were losing some of their market share and some of their competitiveness."
Krasner and others said they believe the restructuring will enable Black & Decker to boost factory use and shave yearly operating costs once all the changes are in place by 1987. Franklin Morton, who follows the company for Alex. Brown & Sons, said Black & Decker can cut costs by as much as $50 million annually.
Whether that, added to the marketing drive, will be enough to turn the company's fortunes around remains to be seen. Wall Street has been skeptical about Black & Decker for some time. The stock has been trading recently in the $21-to-$23 range; it's gone up some in recent months, but is half what it sold for in the 1970s.
A big problem, according to analysts, is that the company's strategic plans have moved in fits and starts under a stream of high-level management changes in recent years. The chief operating position was vacant for a year before Archibald was picked; before that, the firm shuttled two executives through the position in only three years. A number of other senior executives also left the company in the past year.
Archibald said the turnover is over. Even in the recent time of troubles, he said, the stock has held up pretty well because the investment community "can see the intrinsic strengths that Black & Decker has."
"In the end, the results are going to have to be there," he said. "Now they haven't been there in the past, but I think we're on the right path."