On the Call: Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman

Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman discusses managing boom-and-bust cycles as mining sales slow

Associated Press

Big, industrial companies like Caterpillar Inc. are used to seeing ups and downs in the business cycle. Caterpillar makes construction and mining gear, so when the world's economy is booming, business is good, and when the economy slows down, Caterpillar has to tighten its belt.

The trick is figuring out whether a slowdown is minor and temporary, or signals the end of a growth period.

That's what Caterpillar is trying to do now with its mining business, which is going through a slowdown right now. The company noted that mining has grown strongly from a rough patch in 2009 through last year.

Q. Based on what you're seeing on the customer capital spending trends, has this happened for a while or is this more similar to something we've got to go back 20, 30 years to see?

A. Chairman and CEO Doug Oberhelman said Caterpillar has seen four or five major cycles since 1997. The most recent one has been strong growth in the mining business, which began as part of the recovery from the economic slowdown of 2009 and may or may not have ended last year. The silver lining is that Caterpillar has learned how to manage those ups and downs.

"I'd like to think, as negative and perverse as it is, we're getting pretty good at it. And while I don't like a 3-year cycle ... if that's what we're living with, we're going to learn how to manage it," he said. He noted that the division that includes mining equipment is finding ways to cut costs, and "we will take that right on through any of the other businesses we have as well. And it's very hard on our people, it's very hard on our shareholders, it's hard on everybody. But if you look at our performance through (the last slowdown, in 2009), so far, I'm very happy with where we are."

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