Three months ago, this column took a glass-is-half-full view of the cabinet industry’s recent slowdown. I noted that while the industry’s drop from a record peak accented the gloominess of the situation, things are not as dire as they might seem. The fact is, cabinet sales are still at relatively high rates. Though some major cabinet companies have had to lay off workers because of a fall off in orders, we have not heard of any plants closing, nor have we heard of any companies backing away from plans to expand or build new cabinet manufacturing facilities.

“Don’t confuse cabinets with furniture,” I wrote, in response to some suppliers’ fears that the U.S. kitchen cabinetry industry will follow the domestic furniture industry overseas. “The cabinet industry has a long track record of investing in manufacturing technologies and adopting production strategies that lower costs, improve quality, increase customer options and shorten lead times. These are but four important factors that help insulate them from the threat of foreign imports.”

While I still hold these words to essentially ring true, I must admit that the display of force by Chinese cabinet manufacturers at last month’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas gives cause for a second look.

I counted more than 140 Chinese exhibitors in the K/BIS directory; better than one-third of them do business that is intricately related to kitchens and baths, including the manufacture of cabinets, vanities, hardware and countertops.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Lean!

Yours truly has the privilege of moderating the seminar “Lean: Continuous Improvement” on Friday, July 20, during the AWFS Vegas Fair.

The two-hour program will feature John Kim of Lean Horizons LLC, a lean consultant with roots back to Hon Industries. Kim and I will be joined by a panel of three executives culled from Wood & Wood Products’ WOOD 100 class of 2006. They include James Love, president of Rosewood Industries Inc., a kitchen cabinet manufacturer in Stigler, OK; Mark Loberg, founder and CEO of Premier Garage of Phoenix, AZ; and Randy Roark, plant manager of Impressions Marketing Group’s Washington, NC, facility. All three companies are reaping the rewards of lean manufacturing principles.

The session is particularly geared toward companies that are seeking steps to take their lean program to the next level through continuous improvement. This is an excellent opportunity to learn from the real-world experiences of a knowledgeable group of presenters.

‘A Real Eye-Opener'

As one industry consultant, who helps U.S. companies source cabinet-related products from China, put it about the number of Chinese exhibitors, “This show was a real eye-opener.”

Similar remarks by many other U.S. exhibitors echoed throughout the massive halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center during the show’s three-day run. Several wondered out loud whether the Chinese vanguard at K/BIS represented a secured beachhead awaiting a much larger invasion force to take the U.S. kitchen and bath industry by storm.

The most interesting conversation I had on this topic was with an executive of a prominent West Coast kitchen cabinet manufacturing company. Prior to coming to Las Vegas, he said he did not worry too much about competition from China. His opinion changed, however, after talking with representatives of the Beijing Kitchen & Bath Assn. He said the fledgling BK&BA is made up of about a half-dozen large cabinet manufacturers that are working together to develop manufacturing standards that they can use to more effectively promote their export programs.

The West Coast manufacturer said he never felt threatened by the prospect of taking on any one Chinese cabinet manufacturer for his business. He added, though, that the specter of taking on “an industry” was another matter entirely. The budding ambitions of the BK&BA, he said, could prove to be a more formidable force for tract home business, for example, if home builders decide the money they can save by ordering direct from China outweighs any potential loss in lead times or customization.

It’s too early to say how this might play out. But it’s not too early to open our eyes to the possibilities or worse yet, the consequences if we do not.

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