CHICAGO—According to Grant Thornton's ninth biannual Survey of U.S. Business Leaders, 74% of manufacturing and wholesale respondents are optimistic about the improvement of the U.S. economy in the coming year. While nearly two thirds of those 100 manufacturing executives surveyed remain confident in the economy, the numbers are down from the January 2004 survey, where 82% of manufacturing respondents say the economy would improve.

Manufacturing business leaders remain even more optimistic about growth within their own companies, according to the survey. Of the manufacturing leaders surveyed, 92% are extremely optimistic about the growth of their own companies.

To help achieve growth, 75% of the manufacturing companies say their primary focus is on retaining key talent. Sixty-eight percent also say business execution and dealing with pressure margins are important in their growth plans. Six in 10 manufacturers say margin pressures have increased in the past year.

Many manufacturing companies recognize the importance of innovation as a business strategy. Forty-seven percent of manufacturing executives surveyed say innovation has become more important in the past year. Despite the slowing of the economy in the past, more than half of the manufacturing companies expect to hit their sales targets in the next six months. In addition, only 5% say they are below target, while 40% say they are above target.