With two new friends at the Shanghai Blarney Stone

My week-long visit to Shanghai last month was for the China Wood Flooring Export and Import Conference. I was invited in a bid to call attention to the nation’s hardwood business. Most of the focus is on OEM or “original equipment manufacturer” production (or as they prefer to call them, “partnerships”). They make it the way you want it-usually cheaper than you can get it anywhere else-and you put your label on it. There are already a number of U.S. companies that have signed on in one form or another.

In addition to seminars and a busy, if modest, show floor, we toured hardwood flooring factories. At each we were welcomed by anxious, smiling executives who greeted us warmly. The assembly lines were all humming with precision and the workers -young women, mostly - went about their tasks with a clear sense of pride and professionalism in facilities that were clean, well-lit and well-ventilated. Yes, the bosses knew we were coming, but these factories ran like well oiled machinery. You can’t prop that up over night.

I learned on my trip that China no longer harvests its own lumber for flooring. Landslides and other environmental ills forced a shift to imported wood. Also, while there is a huge demand for flooring domestically, China’s focus is on supplying the world. In April, it instituted a 5 percent “consumption tax” to “limit solid wood consumption and protect the environment.” (This is laudable but it’s hard to see how it protects the environment if the flooring is not actually harvested in China.)

One must-see presentation came from Thomas Baert, a one-time Beaulieu-executive who 10 years ago set up shop in China to produce and export flooring. Reflecting on his decade in China, he had high marks for a highly motivated cost-efficient work force and a government that knows how to play ball. Still, sounding a cautionary note, he shared his mantra for any materials he orders: “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.” 

We’ll do more on the China journey in coming issues, but my trip was filled with many surprises (not the least of which was the discovery of an Irish bar on a pub crawl with some flooring execs.) China has a different way of doing things. Their way may not be what we know, but anyone in the flooring business who ignores what China is doing does so at their peril-not unlike crossing a downtown street in Shanghai at rush hour.