Known by your work

So, that was another Woodworking Machinery and Supply Expo (WMS) show, and another year, both of which have food for serious thought — thought echoed in this year’s Readers’ Survey.

To kick it off, an acquaintance of long standing dropped by our booth at WMS. I don’t want to identify him, so let’s just say he is European and has made a career of the Europeans’ passion for quality and efficiency in wood products. Following the typical banter, we started talking about business.

Kerry Knudsen

Kerry Knudsen

In all, this fellow said the industry is in decline, that the consumer wants nothing but melamine and all the business is following the path of mass production.

I pointed out there is a consumer demographic that does, in fact, follow mass production as a fad. They say it’s fashion, but the fact is, it’s cheap. The youngsters buy Ikea for the same reason youngsters in the ’70s used cinder blocks and one-byes. It may as well be cool, ’cause it’s all they can afford.

My opponent in this debate disagreed. He said the new breed of foils can replicate wood grain so accurately that even salesmen on a showroom floor can’t tell the difference. He said he even owns some Ikea, and I said I do, too.

The banter continued, but I began to feel sad. I felt I was talking to somebody that had lost belief in himself and had lost belief in his product. This hit me hard, because so many of my associates in the media have done the same. To my mind, if I were his employer, I would fire him, not so much for the company’s benefit, but for him. It seems to me you are destroying a treasure if you work at something you think is worthless. People are known by their work.

Unfortunately, people, especially young people, don’t always know what their work should be. It is clear industry and society have made a mistake in education. The education game has become all about head count and teacher contracts, and the push behind those initiatives has supplied us with enough computer animators and medical technicians to last forever, much like the ’70s produced an oversupply of psychology majors and foresters. As U.S. presidential candidate Marco Rubio earlier pointed out, welders (and wood industry professionals) make more than philosophers. What has happened to the trades? We need more welders, Rubio says, and fewer philosophers.

But what about my friend’s point? First, let me direct you to our profile on Brenlo Custom Wood Mouldings. There, you will see C.E.O. John Kitchen say of real wood that its grain is nature’s fingerprint. Wood will never be melamine, and melamine will never be wood. Only wood is wood, and if people wanted desks that are dimensionally stable, they would build them out of metal and plastic. And some do.

Ignoring educational fads for the moment, let’s soberly inventory our industry. Canada has the natural resources, the human resources, the fiscal resources and the infrastructure to create and maintain a huge secondary-wood industry. Canada has the desire to support and develop a huge secondary-wood industry. Further, the market is susceptible to compelling advertising, yet there is no unified industry marketing initiative, so it’s reasonable to assume that a unified marketing strategy could affect everything in our sector from available labour to consumer demand. With proper marketing, we have a huge market for what we produce.

Of course, as we have noted, there is a small-but-influential group of detractors that has attempted to direct and control all aspects of the industry, including production, supply, shows, associations and media. However, what if their actions are not purposely destructive, but that they, as with my friend at WMS, drank from the same cup? What if they all think the industry is in decline and they better get theirs while you are still walking?

They have half a point. If you look at post-war Europe, you can see the adoption of mass-production, combined with efficiency, and you can see the development of world-leaders in hardware, consumable supplies, machinery and tooling. To them, faster and better has become gospel in terms of both practice and belief. In fact, Canada, England and the U.S. set up post-war Europe specifically so they could export and recover.

But Canada is not Europe. Certainly, we are capable of quality and efficiency on a mass scale. However, just as it is not in Canada’s character to embrace grey particle board for eternity, it is not in our character to divorce it. We are quite capable of mass production of wood products. It’s just that the largest few we did have are gone — subject to the rules of carrying all your eggs in one basket. The U.S. market convulsed, and the majors took a dive, in many cases terminal, so the former suppliers to the now-deceased are trying to pat up the next tier so they can continue to sell the speed machines. And, predictably, they will have some success and some not-so-much success. Not every shop is a factory.

But Canada remains, demand remains, capacity remains and the will to succeed remains.

What do Canadian producers say? Before we get to that, let’s recognize a fact. The detractors of Wood Industry magazine are fond of discounting our annual Readers’ Surveys. “Figures don’t lie,” they quip, “but liars figure.” This is their way of discounting your voices.

I always get a rush when people say we lie. I like it. When people say we lie, it immediately casts the bright light of scrutiny on the question. In fact, it almost demands a resolution, since it always seems one side is lying, or the other, and we love the exchange. Mostly, we love the exchange because we follow statistical methods, have valid samples and report facts.

This year, we can see that over 75 percent of our survey respondents think it’s time the secondary industry in Canada should stand up and be counted. For those not familiar with statistical methods, getting a 75 percent agreement on anything is virtually impossible. Implicit in that assertion is the fact that those same 75 percent think we are not standing and not being counted.

It also means that the associations, quasi-governmental groups, consultants, educators and media are not doing their jobs to support the industry. Support does not mean to dominate the agenda at every meeting. It means to do the duties inherent in a supporting role to help the industry grow.

So my friend does not see a future for his product line in secondary. For that matter, he does not see a future for secondary the way we have known it. However, the better observation is that our sector is the way we have known it, has always been the way we have known it and will continue to be the way we have known it, with adjustments for fads and finances. The world will not end up as an Ikea grey elephant because some craft-minded college student will decide to paint a drawer red, his friends will like it and coatings will see a small surge in demand for red. Or oak. Or reclaimed wood. Et cetera. Wood is nature’s fingerprint. Ikea is not.

I see a great future in secondary wood products in Canada, but not necessarily for the top five percent. Like the bottom five, they will have to fight out their issues on a case-good-by-case-good basis.

But for the rest of us, I also see the ship beginning to turn. There are still a few special interests with too much influence. We did not ask whether you think it’s time to stand up and be counted for fun. We expected a positive result. We did not, however, expect the overwhelming response. And we are not lying.

The question, now, is how to start the count. We can’t all get in one room at one time, although we can gather virtually. And we need somebody to hold a gavel that is not beholden or intimidated by minority interests. And we need somebody that can cipher between which issues are pressing and national, and which are just squeaky wheels.

We asked the question whether it is time for the secondary sector to stand and be counted. Now, the presenting question is what you think we should do about it. Wood Industry is ready to put its shoulder into any initiative we see as viable for the majority. We must be, as we will finally be known by our work.

So that is it for 2015. In all, another great year. The staff at Wood Industry thanks you for your support and interest. It looks like 2016 will be even better. So, from all of us to all of you, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. And I hope to see you in May in Milan. 

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