Volume 47, Issue 4 - May 2008

A Personal Account: Behind the Great Wall 
CEO Looks for Answers During China Trip
by Rosalie Leone, The Association of Millwork Distributors’ chief executive officer. Ms. Leone’s opinions are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of this magazine.

With most conversations that take place about our industry, you’re sure to hear the global wood market mentioned—with China being a dominant portion of the discussion. Very apparent among other industry trade shows is the number of aisles solely promoting Chinese millwork products and sales reps that are eager to show attendees their catalogs of products.

The Association of Millwork Distributors’ (AMD) members continue to fill educational sessions to standing room only when China’s millwork market is the topic. Attendees simply want to know what’s taking place in the millwork industry over in China and what the future holds for our U.S. manufacturers. 

Last summer, I was a guest speaker at the China International Wood Products Summit. With this invitation, I welcomed the opportunity to observe firsthand what motivates the Chinese people and how their continued economic growth might affect the rest of the world. 

As I boarded my flight, I had serious concerns about the tsunami that was anticipated to reach Shanghai that morning and its impact, if any, on my destination, Qingdao. On the flight to Beijing, a passenger visiting his family in Shanghai eased my mind that Qingdao would be spared the affects of the tsunami. Twenty-seven hours later, I deplaned in Qingdao and found myself being shuffled between people pushing one another toward customs and baggage claim.

Welcome to Haze
As we drove toward the hotel in the early morning hours, what I had mistaken initially for waterfront fog now appeared to be a blanket of smog covering the city. I later came to learn that the urban air quality there has been seriously compromised by emissions from power plants, vehicles and local industry. I wondered how the Chinese government and people might be dealing with the country’s environmental issues. 

The next day, as the sun’s rays desperately tried to light up the sky, I made plans for the day to tour several millwork plants just outside of the city. At each plant we were greeted respectfully by either the president or general manager of the company. 

We toured one of the most prominent and largest wooden door manufacturers in China. The company specializes in producing engineered wooden doors, frames and mouldings with a production capacity of more than 40,000 pieces per month. Upon the completion of a new factory expansion, its monthly productivity anticipated to increase up to 60,000 door pieces per month. The objective of company management is “to be the best wooden doors supplier in the world.” The company believes that by involving its employees in its goal that workers will be inspired to take more pride in their work and increase their productivity.

As the day continued, we stopped at a millwork plant specializing in hemlock, oak and elm interior and exterior doors; its current production volume was at 200,000 pieces per year in a 40,000-square-foot factory with 400 workers. The manufacturing facilities we toured were exporting their door products primarily to North America (including the United States), Europe, Japan, and the Middle East. 

Not a Machine Nation
As I continued the tours throughout the day, I noticed the lack of machinery in use, with the majority of the labor being performed manually by young girls and elderly workers.

During an educational session at the summit, we learned that manufacturers have difficulty recruiting and retaining employees. They are reluctant to have their workers trained because they are known to take time off in the spring and fall for harvest for two to three weeks at a time. Many times they do not return—creating a shortage in the workforce of qualified employees.

The quality of ventilation in the plants was less than ideal. By day’s end, a few of the tour attendees noticed a sense of heaviness in their lungs. As we returned to the city, I peered through the bus window and observed the local living conditions; it made me wonder what other health issues could be attributed to environmental problems.

As millwork manufacturing demands placed on China continue to grow, the country’s resources continue to become sparse. I would have to guess that, despite a foreign investment in China’s forest industry, forest resources continue to be less than abundant and China will continue to rely on imported forest products. Their mills will continue to be dependent on other countries, such as Russia, which supplies approximately 60 percent of the imports of logs and approximately 15 percent of its overall imported lumber.

After visiting several plants, listening to various speakers and discussions, I concluded that, considering China’s population and the number of people looking to improve their way of life, the Chinese government likely will continue supporting economic growth and creating job opportunities for its people looking to improve their living conditions. 

As a world issue, I wonder, would the continued push by governments for economic growth be the trade-off for improving environmental issues? I ask myself, how will American manufacturers compete as production increases? What impact will it have on the millwork industry and the supply chain as we know it? 

Landing in Tampa, I was ever so appreciative of the Sunshine State I call home. I went to China looking for answers and found I came home with so many more questions. I’ll continue to read the paper, watch our nightly news and hopefully travel back to China in search of more answers. 

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