John Clark of NOFMA addresses the China Wood conference

Sharply reduced manufacturing costs and a government eager to lure foreign businesses were the top selling points at the four-day China Wood Flooring Export and Import Conference. The meeting in Shanghai was aimed at showcasing partnership opportunities while dispelling some commonly held notions about China. Notably, those eager to advance the Chinese flooring business stressed that the nation should not be seen as the domain of low-cost product.

“China is not the place to make low-end goods; it is the perfect place to make highend goods,’’ assured Thomas Baert, the president of Chinafloors Timber Co. during a presentation focused on his experience as a flooring executive in China. He noted that global shipping costs and competition from other low-wage nations diminish China’s competitive edge in low-end flooring. The nation’s manufacturing savvy and its government‘s effort to encourage foreign investors can be most beneficial to high-end hardwood makers, said Baert, a former Beaulieu executive who has worked in China for 10 years. “You can get everything in this country because everyone wants your business,” he added.

Joe Audino of NWFA meets with exhibitors on the show floor

The conference, held Nov. 8-11 at a resort outside of Shanghai was organized by the trade group China Wood International (CWI). In addition to presentations and a modest show floor, attendees had the opportunity to tour a number of local hardwood factories. Those on hand included Timm Locke of NOFMA: the Wood Flooring Manufacturers Association and Joe Audino of the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) as well as a number of other individuals prominent in the U.S. industry.

Conference attendees from the U.S generally agreed that China was not yet a major factor in the North American hardwood market and that cultural and logistical barriers continue to be major obstacles. Still, with a population of 1.3 billion, an estimated 5,000 companies involved in flooring and a flooring production growth rate pegged at about 20 percent a year, there was wide agreement that China’s overtures to the U.S. flooring industry should not be dismissed. Even so, some of the Americans said they felt as though they were invited to the show mostly to offer their expertise.

a worker at the wood flooring plant Shanghai Mi Flooring Manufacture Co. during a tour of the facility by conference attendees.

“They want to pick our brains,” said John Troendle, president Crescent Hardwood Supply, a distributor in Harahan, La., referring to suppliers he was meeting on the show floor. “We are giving them a lot of information but when we ask them questions about distribution they don’t know.”

“We are looking for someone to make engineered product,” commented Mark Hayes, a general manager for the international forest products company, Weyerhaeuser Co.  “I saw a lot of prospects and I met with factories that I would not have seen otherwise. The show floor was pretty modest and we didn’t make any deals, but I did learn a lot. It was definitely worth my while. China is a big player in flooring. You can’t ignore them.”