What would it take to knock imports from the top of the "greatest challenge" list? A big housing downturn that has put the brakes on cabinet sales.

Every year, we ask respondents to our FDM 300 survey what is their greatest challenge. We ran many of the comments as part of our coverage of the FDM 300 in our February issue. Here is a quick analysis of those responses.

Nearly a third (30 percent) of those answering our question indicated that the economy and housing slump were their greatest concern in 2007.

Among the specific comments: Remaining competitive in a down market; New construction/housing market; Keeping up during a continuing housing downturn and competition; Surviving the current collapse in new home construction; and 97 percent of business with homebuilders, so no home buying is a problem.

When we tallied the biggest challenges a year ago, imports were the largest concern, mentioned by 25 percent of those listing a "greatest challenge." Next was employees (16 percent), followed by business conditions (11 percent), handling growth (8 percent), pricing and profitability, and health care (both 7 percent). Five percent indicated that material costs were their greatest challenge, and 21 percent of responses comprised what we called the "other concerns" category. A year ago, an increasing number of companies were looking at the housing slump as a growing concern.Employee concerns

For 2007, employees were again the second largest concern, with 16 percent of companies indicating this was their biggest challenge, the same percentage as 2006. Companies were concerned about: Maintaining and sourcing outstanding employees; Attracting and retaining employees; and, Finding quality and competent labor.

Imports were the biggest challenge for only 11 percent of respondents. This is surely still a concern for most manufacturers, but has been pushed into the background a bit by the housing downturn. In this area, companies were concerned about: Competing with import products from China; Maintaining a margin with pricing pressures from imported products; Getting consumers to appreciate fine quality in the face of low-cost Asian imports; and, Convincing customers that we can manufacture in the U.S. and outperform and compete with Asian competitors!

Handling growth and expansion was the greatest challenge for 10 percent of companies responding. These companies were concerned with: Managing growth; In growth mode, so building and expansion problems, new equipment, production capacity; Space to store inventory and distribution centers in key locations; and, Actually a really good year, no challenges stand out.

And 9 percent of respondents indicated that the exchange rate between the U.S. and Canadian dollar has been the greatest challenge over the past year.

The "other" category includes a variety of responses and accounted for 23 percent of the total. Health care costs, government regulations, collections, competing against non-union manufacturers, pricing, and energy issues were mentioned.

What's your biggest challenge?

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