Reality Check; Input From the Outside World

Sometimes I get accused of being too much of a pessimist. Maybe sometimes I am. On the other hand, maybe the correct question is whether or not my occasionally pessimistic outlook is justified . I’d prefer to think I’m just taking a hard look at real business issues.

 
For a change, I’m going to let somebody else raise the tough issues and, incidentally, write half my column for me. Can’t beat that. I received this email unsolicited. It is published here complete and unedited. Go read it and then I’ll tell you what I suggested when I talked with the guy (It’s below). Hurry up please. I’m late getting this column done.
 
I had lots of no doubt accurate and valuable platitudes about business cycles I recited to Dale. None of them seemed to make him feel much better. I received this email over a month ago (more by the time you read this). Thinking about it since then, I’ve come up with a couple of ideas, or maybe just helpful perspectives.
 
First, let’s all decide to call the wood from China birch. That’s apparently what it is, and there’s no reason we should be helping to perpetuate the myth that it’s anything else.
 
Second, recognize that it’s been around a long time and is going to continue to be around. For cheap completes sold in big chains it probably makes sense and may even have the benefit of getting kids skating cheaper.
 
Third, it’s clear that Chinese birch skateboards don’t hold up when used by real skaters doing real skate tricks. So while some of the major brands may be tempted by cost to try and use it, enlightened self interest will make them back off. They can’t afford to have their decks collapse on a massive scale in the way Dale describes. The issue, then, becomes whether Chinese manufacturers can procure the harder Canadian maple and make and deliver decks that are as good as what’s made currently in the US. What I’ve said is that they can and will if the market makes it worthwhile in the same way they have with so many other products.
 
If the quality is there, and the price is lower, then they will become a standard and only new technology in skateboards will slow that process down. I suppose the other thing that could happen is that the major brands could decide as a group not to buy decks from China. Aside from the issue of legality, that’s a level of industry cooperation I rarely see. Even if it exists, it can break down if business pressures get too strong.
 
The other problem is that we already know that blanks take a big piece of the market. If Canadian maple Chinese decks of good quality become available, I suspect people who are willing to buy current blanks, and maybe some others, will be more than happy to buy an even cheaper, high quality product.
 
But where will the Chinese get their Canadian maple? It doesn’t appear that they will get it from LaGrand Lumber & Veneer. It sounds like Dale would have to price it in such a way that he’d lose money if he wants the business. Well, maybe if they get in early they can corner the market, but it doesn’t sound like Dale and the other members of management at LaGrand are the kind of people who believe that you can lose a little on each piece but make it up in volume. So unless LaGrand can dramatically change its business model, it doesn’t sound like losing money selling to the Chinese while helping knock its existing domestic customers out of business makes much sense.
 
Dale might do five things- the first one of which he is probably already doing. Talk to all the other domestic veneer suppliers and find out how they are reacting. Second, he might publicize the quality issue (I guess I’m starting that for him) with an ad or two in Skateboarding Business to begin to create some awareness- sort of like “Intel Inside.”
 
The third one is to meet with the companies he sells veneer to and talk about their plans and their reaction. Is there room for some form of cooperation on new skateboarding technology? Fourth, and he’s probably already doing this too, he has to look at the source of the existing decline in veneer sales. How much does he really believe is the result of Chinese decks coming into the country, and how much is the slowing of skateboard sales?
 
Finally, and depending on the answer to four, he should certainly be looking for new markets. That’s something any business should be doing all the time. It’s worth some attention even when part of your business isn’t threatened because it positions you much better when, inevitably it seems, some threat emerges.
 
The devil, of course, is in the details. I can’t offer specific advise to Dale or LaGrand without specific information about their business. I hope my general advice is useful, and I thank Dale for sharing this very real issue with us.
 
Jeff Harbaugh is President of Jeff Harbaugh & Associates, an action sports consulting firm that helps managers and owners improve profits by focusing on the few issues that are really important. Reach him at (206) 232-3138 or at jharbaugh@msn.com.
 
SIDEBAR   
 
Dear Mr. Harbaugh:
Thank you for your insights and ideas you submit in your columns in Transworld Skateboarding Business magazine. I always appreciate your hard line on doing what is best for the business in general.
I am the sales manager here at LaGrand Lumber & Veneer, Inc. and am very alarmed by the Asian influence on business here in the States in general and especially with the Skateboard Industry. We supply Hard Maple veneer from our three mills to skateboard deck manufacturing plants throughout the US, Canada and sometimes abroad. In an average year we sell nearly *** . 25%-30% is skateboard veneer which we have been supplying for nearly 25 yrs.
As you are probably aware, the furniture industry has taken huge hits from imported components shipped in from China. Over a dozen plants have been closed forever in North Carolina because those companies now order their components and completed goods from China, idling over ten thousand workers. I have clients in the component manufacturing business here in the States that have lost 50%+ of their business to Pacific Rim countries. This is trade they’ll never get back.
Mean while, when you and I go to buy a new piece of furniture for our home, none of the cost savings benefit reaped by the mfr is gained by us. That same $3,000.00 sofa made two years ago completely in the States still costs $3,000.00 even though it cost far less to produce overseas. The mfr and the Chinese govt. are the winners.
While furniture imported from China, made from Chinese raw material may be acceptable in appearance and performance, my experience with skateboards is totally different. As was indicated in the article, Skateboard Science (Skateboarding Business, April 2002) Chinese raw material (veneer) does not match Hard Maple which has been the standard forever. The veneer, touted as "China Maple" is in fact not Maple. It is a specie of Birch. Tests performed at the Forest Research Laboratory in Madison, WI prove that this specie has approximately the same physical characteristics as Soft Maple, a specie long ago abandoned by the skateboard industry.
I have two customers who bought China Maple veneer from a sales rep here thinking they were buying North American Hard Maple. That rep should be tarred and feathered (or worse), but that’s another topic. Anyway, they manufactured the decks and sent them out through their normal distribution channels. In short order, literally thousands of decks were returned in various states of ruin and decay. Decks were split, broken, and mushy. All due to the quality of veneer used to manufacture them. One customer nearly lost his largest account because of the poor quality. He was able to salvage the account when we provided him with the necessary veneer to quickly replace the order.
My fear is that as a raw material supplier I should have seen this coming long ago and it may be too late to react. I believe that if we don’t do something soon, cheap imported decks will become the standard. Once riders become accustomed to a lower standard they will no longer know the difference and imported decks will be acceptable. I know this may be insulting to the current rider who can tell the difference, but my concern is perpetuating the business and I’m afraid the young, new rider won’t know and won’t be told.
You should know that what really convinced me to write you is an experience I had yesterday with an export agent. He called requesting a quote on container loads of skate veneer going to China. Upon quoting him our standard prices, he laughed and told me that if I wanted to do business with China, I needed to learn how to lower my prices. We price veneer based on the cost to produce plus a reasonable profit margin. I asked him what benefit I would gain from hurting my loyal US customers by selling overseas for less and loosing my profit margin. He laughed and responded that I’d have my foot in the door when the Chinese totally take over US skateboard manufacturing.
There is no doubt that manufacturing is down due to the economy. However, there is also pressure coming from beyond the economy and if we don’t react now while we are slow and have the time to react, we will all be left in the dust when the next surge (and I’m confident there’ll be one) comes.
I am venting this on you because you are a connected person who people seem to listen to. We do as much as we can to promote the industry including attending shows and working on promos with our customers. Try as I may to get the message out that quality and integrity starts with the raw material, it seems to fall on deaf ears.
Is the skateboard manufacturing business preparing to roll over and allow imported decks become the standard? Should I start looking for new markets to replace our skateboard veneer sales? Should I "learn how to lower my prices to China"?
Please advise.

Best Regards,
Dale Rosema
Sales Mgr – LaGrand Lumber & Veneer, Inc.