Optimism amid naysayers
May 31, 2014 | 7:00 pm CDT
I just got back from the IWF show in Atlanta where the minds of nearly everyone were on the state of the economy and its affect on our industry. Show traffic was down, but I'm happy to say that the attitude of most attendees and exhibitors I talked to was much more on the optimistic side. In fact, I heard fewer complaints from exhibitors this year than I've heard in some boom years. Why is that?

Some of it is probably simple pragmatism. The economy is what it is, and it is better to work with it for the best possible result rather than waste time complaining. Those who like to complain the most probably didn't even bother to come to the show anyway. Any business person of even minimal experience knows that there are ups and downs, and weathering the downs in better shape than the competition will put you ahead when the economy improves.

Not a waiting game

But it isn't just a waiting game. A number of suppliers are seeing some positive signs of change. North America's ability to compete on the world stage has taken some recent changes. Container transportation from China has become incredibly more expensive to the point that the price difference for offshore goods may not be so attractive. At the same time, the decrease in the U.S. dollar's value against the Euro makes our goods more attractive to European buyers (although there are also signs that the dollar may be coming back).

Taken together, those things add credence to stories we heard at the show of major American factories sending scouting teams to IWF in anticipation of relaunching or reinvigorating their domestic manufacturing.

But what has any of that to do with small shops struggling in the current economy. Well, it turns out that many of them aren't. Time after time I asked shop owners how their business was, and only a few had tales of woe. Those all tended to be shops that had been relying on parts of the market dependent on new construction. But the shops that focused on more upscale customers who are remodeling or upgrading seemed to have no lack of work.

The right attitude

Now, I'll grant you, just as it probably was with the exhibitors, the shop owners in real trouble likely just didn't come to the show. If you can't figure out where the next job is coming from, you're not likely to be shopping for new machines and supplies. But all the same, even shop owners whose business was not booming were mostly looking forward. It reminded me of the famous quote from Henry Ford: "If you think you can't do a thing or think you can, you're right."

I've long held that perseverance is the most important trait of a successful business owner. Anybody can be successful when times are good, and we've had a lot of good times over the last few decades in this industry. But it takes a much more savvy business person to keep going when things slow down or there's an obstacle to overcome.

The other trend at the show I was pleased to see was the increasing willingness of shops to get out of isolation and look for help. More shops are doing business with other shops to take advantage of different core competencies. More shops are seeking outside help in the form of consulting or shared production. More shops are taking advantage of technology and outsourcing to improve efficiency and expand capacity. And more small shops are talking with each other through associations like the CMA and AWI. These shops are focused on thinking they can indeed succeed despite economic pressures, and you know something, they're right.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user willsampson
About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.