E-letter: Several good-news stories

Statistics Canada yesterday reported an overall increase in building permits over September of 0.7 percent. Residential permits nation-wide edged down 0.9 percent, and total nonresidential permits increased 2.4 percent.

The increase was led this time by the industrial sector, and, while our sector typically watches nonresidential commercial and nonresidential institutional, the increase in the nonresidential industrial sector is a much-looked-for indicator of recovery in our manufacturing sector, which leads to jobs and spending. Coupled with yesterday’s news from Ottawa of the imminent funding of defence contractor Pratt and Whitney, this shows signs of life in Canada’s much-abused manufacturers.

Kerry Knudsen

Kerry Knudsen

Back to residential housing, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp showed the seasonally adjusted annualized rate of housing starts rose to 195,620 units in November, up from 183,659 in October and beating the Reuters forecast of 195,000.

We have mentioned frequently the need in any industry for a strong intra-sector infrastructure, including trade shows, associations and media. CTV aired a stunning example of cooperation between media and associations last week in this clip about Landscape Ontario Horticultural Trades Association (LO), an association for 10 sectors in the horticultural trades, including landscape contractors, designers, nursery growers, etc. Full Disclosure: my wife is the publisher for LO’s magazines, but she did not share this clip with us. We learned about it at last week’s combined IIDEX and Construct Canada show in Toronto. I don’t know how Lee Ann manages to get more mention in Wood Industry than I do, but she does. I guess we just live with it.

In the short, 2.3-minute clip, you will see a homeowner that was allegedly ripped off for thousands of dollars by an unscrupulous landscape contractor. The homeowner, lacking options, called CTV, who, in turn, contacted LO. The association responded by organizing labour and replacement materials, and by fixing up the customer for the good of the customer and the industry. The clip is worth watching if only for seeing an antagonistic and an allegedly unscrupulous supplier with a microphone in his face. Hats off to CTV for reporting on news that is relevant, timely and consequential for real people in Canada.

Hats off, too, to LO. (Jeez! I am never going to hear the end of this.) One of the recurring concerns we address as an industry is quality control and customer complaints. I imagine this is common to all industries other than law and politics.

However, LO clearly took a course in crisis management and turned a negative image for the industry into a home run.

We could do this, as well. However, it is common to look at outside PR and think a trained chimp could do it. And maybe it could. But it would first need a contact point in the industry. It would then need an existing database of willing members and an existing database of media contacts. More importantly, it would need an existing relationship with the media contacts that included a sense of common purpose, mutual respect and personal contacts over time.

It immediately appears, of course, that LO is an Ontario association. However, according to Knudsen (her, not me) that often-cited drag on all Canadian associations, that of being from Ontario, is unavoidable when trying to influence public opinion and politics. It is simply a fact that Ontario has numbers and money that other associations cannot match, and money and numbers are imperative whether trying to sway the public or the parliament.

Although I am not “from” Ontario, I am in Ontario, so I think I have a sense of how people feel about “another Ontario association” acting like the big-shot. I am not sure I have an alternate suggestion, other than to point out the obvious – that the sum of the non-Ontario members of any national association could easily outvote the Ontario members. Or maybe not. I don’t know. However, using Ontario as an excuse for non-performance will necessarily yield non-performance.

I do know from our November Readers’ Survey (combined data with manufacturers and suppliers) that 47 percent of respondents say we need a “strong, national trade association for the wood industry in Canada,” and I know that the current, fractured and diverse associations currently operating in our sector in Canada account for less than 2 percent of the market. To cite one of our survey respondents, our current associations are, “Too splintered; no cohesive single voice.” Or another: “I hate the fight between the couple of rival associations that have emerged.”

To me, this raises the question of value. People join LO because they feel their benefit is greater than their cost. Instead of being sullen, territorial, protective and demanding, they declare a set of standards and enforce it, even if it is very probable the subject of the clip will now never join. It is also probable that the folks that came to the aid of the customer in the clip will never quit, because their work is appreciated and they accomplished something.

People also want associations run in a specific manner. Just under 84 percent of our survey respondents said associations should carry their own financial weight, while only 16 percent said they should rely on sponsorship or governmental support. It seems they understand that whoever pays the piper may soon want to call the tune. As one respondent said, “… just please do not attempt to involve the government (especially the Ontario government) in any future wood/cabinet/lumber industry or associations.”

A smaller majority, 55 percent, think associations should have professionals running their administration, while volunteer members run the board. I have to admit, I am with that 55 percent, as few volunteer, rotating board members have the time or expertise to manage the day-to-day details required to run an effective association. Sometimes you have to pay if you want something done, and paying a professional provides independence. You can do what you’re good at – being the boss.

Like the wood industry, the landscape industry is composed largely of family-owned businesses. Like the wood industry, landscapers are saddled with environmental regulations, labour shortages, prohibitive insurance costs and tax tables designed to optimize Bay Street corporate structures on an agricultural budget.

Unlike the wood industry, the landscapers are taking their bull by the horns. Around the Knudsen house, it’s getting a bit embarrassing.

So… I guess that’s it; 2014 has been and gone. In all, it was a line of pluses. Building permits were up, remodeling up. Housing values up. The stock market was up. It also appears the loonie will be trading lower, which, of course, is a mixed value. For our wood industry’s need to export south, however, it’s roses.

The bustle and hustle of trade shows and summer have subsided, for now. The grandkids have become singularly focused on a date just over two weeks from today. I hope 2014 for you was productive and successful, with just enough irritation to let you know you are alive and kicking, and may the next year have even more of the production and less of the stress than this.

From W.I. Media and all of its staff, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Let’s get back together in 2015 and do it all over again.

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