VERTICAL INTEGRATION. - Strategic Management

The steps that a product goes through in being transformed from raw materials to a finished product in the possession of the customer constitute the various stages of production. When a firm diversifies closer to the sources of raw materials in the stages of production, it is following a backward vertical integration Strategy. Avon's primary line of business has been the selling of cosmetics door-to-door. Avon pursued a backward form of vertical integration by entering into the production of some of its cosmetics. Forward diversification occurs when firms move closer to the consumer in terms of the production stages. Levi Strauss & Co., traditionally a manufacturer of clothing, has diversified forward by opening retail stores to market its textile products rather than producing them and selling them to another firm to retail.

Backward integration allows the diversifying firm to exercise more control over the quality of the supplies being purchased. Backward integration also may be undertaken to provide a more dependable source of needed raw materials. Forward integration allows a manufacturing company to assure itself of an outlet for its products. Forward integration also allows a firm more control over how its products are sold and serviced. Furthermore, a company may be better able to differentiate its products from those of its competitors by forward integration. By opening its own retail outlets, a firm is often better able to control and train the personnel selling and servicing its equipment.

Since servicing is an important part of many products, having an excellent service department may provide an integrated firm a competitive advantage over firms that are strictly manufacturers. Some firms employ vertical integration strategies to eliminate the "profits of the middleman." Firms are sometimes able to efficiently execute the tasks being performed by the middleman (wholesalers, retailers) and receive additional profits. However, middlemen receive their income by being competent at providing a service. Unless a firm is equally efficient in providing that service, the firm will have a smaller profit margin than the middleman. If a firm is too inefficient, customers may refuse to work with the firm, resulting in lost sales.

Vertical integration strategies have one major disadvantage. A vertically integrated firm places "all of its eggs in one basket." If demand for the product falls, essential supplies are not available, or a substitute product displaces the product in the marketplace, the earnings of the entire organization may suffer.

Horizontal integration occurs when a firm enters a new business (either related or unrelated) at the same stage of production as its current operations. For example, Avon's move to market jewelry through its door-to-door sales force involved marketing new products through existing channels of distribution. An alternative form of horizontal integration that Avon has also undertaken is selling its products by mail order (e.g., clothing, plastic products) and through retail stores (e.g., Tiffany's). In both cases, Avon is still at the retail stage of the production process.

As documented in a study by Marlin, Lamont, and Geiger, ensuring a firm's diversification strategy is well matched to the strengths of its top management team members factored into the success of that strategy. For example, the success of a merger may depend not only on how integrated the joining firms become, but also on how well suited top executives are to manage that effort. The study also suggests that different diversification strategies (concentric vs. conglomerate) require different skills on the part of a company's top managers, and that the factors should be taken into consideration before firms are joined.

There are many reasons for pursuing a diversification strategy, but most pertain to management's desire for the organization to grow. Companies must decide whether they want to diversify by going into related or unrelated businesses. They must then decide whether they want to expand by developing the new business or by buying an ongoing business. Finally, management must decide at what stage in the production process they wish to diversify.

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