Believe in the silver lining. I dare you.
I didn’t shoot a guy once. I was doing a stint as a start-up editor for an outdoor magazine in Michigan, when my phone rang one morning. The guy on the other end said he had invented some kind of new, bullet-proof cloth. The magazine had become very popular, he said, and he wanted the editor – me – to come to his shop and shoot him in his new armour for the PR value. He further said I could use any weapon I chose in any caliber – handgun, rifle or shotgun. He also said he would sign any kind of waiver I wanted.
He was also very pushy. Our family again watched the holiday classic A Christmas Story, featuring Ralphie, the kid infatuated with getting a BB gun for Christmas. The “shootee” was Schwartz in the schoolyard, rapidly upping the ante from a simple dare to the sinister Triple-Dog-Dare.
I can honestly say the thought never crossed my mind that it would be fun, interesting or excusable. I do, however, recall at the time imagining myself standing over a corpse with a smoking gun, explaining to a policeman that I had permission. It just sounded stupid. Later, after thinking about it for a while, I also wondered whether the guy was serious, or whether he was trying to dupe me into helping him commit suicide.
In any event, I declined. In retrospect, it was just another of life’s quirky forks in the road. It was odd at the time, but ended up telling me something about myself I didn’t fully know. I’m a skeptic.
I had lunch over Christmas with an advertiser, and he has a different take. He says he perceives me as an optimist. I see myself that way, as well, but I wonder if skeptical optimists are common. I think so, and I think a lot of them own manufacturing companies.
At lunch, we were discussing the future. One would think we’d get over that, given the events of the past. Fortune-tellers lack credibility as the result of their performance. Nonetheless, we were looking at the current state of the industry and speculating.
Of course, “current” in terms of economics, is as unknowable as the future. We are living in this day, but we don’t know the macroeconomic meaning of this day until Statistics Canada tells us. For our purposes, when I say “current,” I mean the most recent reports. In this case, we were focused on October building permits. Canada’s October Building Permit Report from Statistics Canada was reporting record highs. Our October permits were at $7.5 billion, which is 15 percent above September, month-over-month, and up 17 percent year-over-year from October 2011. If those permits become starts in the next few months, my crystal ball says 2013 should be lucky for more people in wood than ever before.
However, there is something wrong with the picture. While permits are at record highs, domestic production in such key sectors as kitchen cabinets and architectural millwork are up only incrementally from the depths of 2009. There are other factors, of course. Before 2008, our dollar exchange with the U.S. was over 30 percent better for exporting. This gave us an automatic, 30-percent margin for anything sold south of the border. However, if you exclude the U.S., and compare domestic consumption (Canada buying) with domestic production (Canada making), the consumption is way up and the production is up slightly.
Imports are not the culprit, either. Imports are following the permits up and down throughout the four-year period since 2008, but at the same percentages as before, leaving the portion for domestic production lagging between projected performance and realized performance.
Economically, this means there is a lot of unsatisfied demand – possibly manufacturers selling off inventory or delaying reporting in advance of a more solid indication from the market that this is real, and not an isolated spike.
Another possibility exists, that being poor leadership. I am not pointing fingers. I am just saying that our industry is underperforming the broader markets, and there has to be a reason. I do not subscribe to the que sera sera school of economic skullduggery. Things happen for a reason. Right now, our belief that the Americans could always pay a 30-percent premium was wrong. That’s gone. The idea China would overrun Canada in 10 years was wrong. In fact, if we were awake, we would be overrunning China. The way our associations address national issues has not worked. The methods we have used to produce a skilled labour force have not worked.
Poor leadership does not require the presence of poor leaders. It can also imply the absence of good ones. Or it can imply political manipulation of the system for personal gain, rather than for the good of the sector – as has been discovered in the Quebec construction industry. In any case, history shows that poor leadership has affected countries, regions, religions, disciplines, cities, families and companies, as well as sectors.
Churches, towns, industries and causes all need leaders, and, as you know, that means you. This is not a “rah-rah” moment to join something and participate. It’s more a suggestion that if you don’t drive your business, you can’t expect much help. If you are looking for help, your prospect should possess three traits: education, training and performance. A willingness to get a cheque on your behalf is not one.
StatCan is not the end-all for analysis. However, it measures what it measures and provides a timeline. We have every right to be in a major boom. To the extent we are not, we are the victims, not of the economy, the Americans or imports, but of our own inertia.
Over the past four years, our leadership has invited us repeatedly to try out one version or other of its high-tech-fabric-du-jour. We don’t have to pull the trigger to know the ideas won’t work. There are new stories to tell, new fields to conquer and a new year to write in history. Go on. I Triple-Dog-Dare you.
Please post your comments at www.woodindustry.ca/talk
Visit and like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/woodindustry