The just-concluded Woodworking Machinery & Supply Expo (WMS) provides the freshest evidence of how much better the Canadian economy is compared to that of its southern neighbor.

To set the WMS stage, while the Canadian housing market hit the brakes and suffered a temporary setback, the brakes not only failed for the U.S. home building industry, it fell into an abyss from which it has yet to ascend. Thus, at the same time Canada housing starts are on pace to hit 205,900 units this year, construction of homes in the U.S. is running at an improving but still depressed level of 658,000 units. Considering that the U.S. population is roughly nine times bigger than Canada, a 2.5 times greater housing start differential says a lot about the relative strength (or weakness) of each country’s housing market.

Being that housing is a leading indicator for the wood products industry, it was probably no great surprise that the more than 3,650 woodworkers attending Canada’s largest woodworking event, Oct. 27-29, -- nearly 10% more than who attended WMS 2009 -- did so with a great sense of optimism and purpose. They came from throughout Canada, seeking the machines and supplies that will not only help sustain their businesses, but propel them into the future.

Five WMS Observations
1. I had the opportunity to talk with dozens of Canadian woodworkers and suppliers at the show. No doubt things could be better, and they are moving in that direction thanks largely to housing and financial markets that were never allowed to spin out of control. For many Canadian woodworking-related enterprises, the troubled U.S. economy remains their number one problem. A prime example is the executive of a 350-man cabinet shop in Winnipeg who said his company has gone from doing 80 percent of its business in the U.S. to doing 60 percent in Canada in the past three years.

2. WMS attendees came to the show in a buying mood, as judged by discussions I had with a wide swath of exhibitors. For example, CNC Automation reported selling one or more units of each of the CNC routers, moulders, sanders, finishing systems and other woodworking machines occupying its 8,000-square-foot display. On top of this, CNC Automation representatives said they accumulated nearly 400 quality leads during the three-day event. The owner of a three-man cabinet shop based in Manitoba told me he was looking to buy a nesting router to handle increased business volume.

3. The two most well-attended seminar program topics were Cost Estimating Essentials, presented by Sean Benetin, immediate past president of the Cabinet Makers Assn., and Lean Manufacturing Basics, led by Lignum Consulting veteran Sepp Gmeiner. This leads me to believe that WMS attendees are keen on shoring up their bottom lines by getting a better handle on their costs and to become more efficient.

4. Like most woodworking shows, WMS floor traffic steadily strengthened from the first day, Thursday, into the second day. Then, when many exhibitors braced for what they assumed would be a long, quiet day three on Saturday, something I have rarely seen in my 26 years of attending woodworking shows occurred. Woodworkers showed up in numbers equal or better than the first day. What’s more, exhibitors – and I – were amazed at how many attendees were still actively browsing the displays at 3 p.m. A fair number of them were politely asked to leave the Direct Energy Centre an hour later when the show closed and exhibit tear down began.

5. As the show neared its successful conclusion, it dawned on me how appropriate it was that the 2011 edition of WMS had been held at the 2011 Direct Energy Centre, because “energy” was the operative word to sum up this most welcomed, uplifting event.

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