Attendance at the International Woodworking Fair may have improved this year, but MJB Wood Group's Larry Gaskey remembers the days when the crowds were "outrageous." The self-described "old-timer" wonders if technology is hurting trade shows by facilitating the rollout of new innovations before industry events can take place; but he also recognizes the undeniable value in having a presence at these expos. That's because "the people who do go are decision-makers," explains Gaskey, national business director of fixtures and display at the firm, where he has worked for 23 years. Whereas companies used to send large entourages with representatives at different levels, now that firms have had to scale down their delegations somewhat, he says "you're not going to have to go through two to three levels to get to a decision. The people you truly interface with are the decision-makers."
These key players were exactly whom MJB hoped to attract at IWF, and Gaskey believes that goal was accomplished based on "exceptional" foot traffic to the firm's booth. While he observed many import hardware companies from Asia set up as exhibitors and a lot of high-gloss products on display, Gaskey says some of the biggest buzz at the fair surrounded trends in embossed decorative surfaces -- a segment of the industry where MJB is on the cutting edge. The Texas-based company attracted a great deal of attention, for example, with its synchronized version of the material. Through a collaboration between paper printers and machine manufacturers, a piece of fabricated wood is made to resemble the real thing -- including knots, grains, and other features -- without the higher cost. "It's a noticeable difference," Gaskey points out. "You get a decent look with an embossed or textured panel but when you do the synchronized embossed, you truly get a panel that looks like a piece of pre-finished plywood."
MJB's booth also showcased cross-grain edgebanding, which offers a new look in the woodworking industry that attracted flocks of event-goers as well. "When you cut a piece of wood, where you make that cut you can see the grain," says Gaskey, explaining how the process works. "So historically people just took the printed PVC and they would put it on all four sides of the board with the same print. ... But because you're cutting across the grain, that would be different than a straight grain cutting down the side. So you use a cross-grain printer and then now that laminate panel or that melamine panel truly looks like a piece of solid lumber."
MJB additionally is embracing the trend toward bigger printers. At IWF, the firm used a backsplash on a countertop to demonstrate the powerful 3-D effect of the technology. "The backsplash was a 3-D digitally printed stone picture that you had to touch to realize that it wasn't" actual stone, Gaskey says. He reports that industry response was favorable to all of the new products and trends MJB highlighted, innovations that he describes as "more than a flash in the pan," unlike some others that have had little longevity.
Although the IWF was, by Gaskey's measure, "a very good show" for MJB, the company -- and the rest of the building materials industry -- still faces some challenges going forward. A big one is the evaporation of Baby Boomers as end users. "They're pretty much done buying their furniture," declares Gaskey, who adds that their replacement with Millennials at the same time serves as an opportunity for the future. He notes that industry insiders are scrambling to figure out what the buying habits and patterns of these young adults will be. Product suppliers need to narrow down what they can manufacture that Millennials are willing to pay for -- although they do know that these items will differ from what Baby Boomers desired. Unlike the previous generation, this demographic has no interest or need for computer desks or TV cabinets, for instance; and many aren't even buying homes after watching their parents get burned by the housing meltdown. Industry dynamics are evolving as a result. "It's a challenge for our customers and even our store fixture manufacturers," Gaskey points out. "Stores have become a place now where it's more of a brand experience than a selling experience. Millennials want to go in and touch; they want to identify and connect with the brand but then they're going to go home and buy it on Amazon. They're not necessarily going to buy it in the store."
Another issue on the horizon for the building materials sector involves freight, as new regulations restrict the number of hours drivers can spend on the road and many truckers step back from the long-haul end of the market. "It's one of those little things that nobody really thinks about, says Gaskey, but it has "created some real challenges in servicing customers and ... has a huge impact on our costs and our industry." A possible solution to this dilemma, and a potential future opportunity, is greater use of rail by distributors to move product. "Distributors might say, 'okay, we can cut some costs out; we'll bring it in by rail and then distribute from this point by truck'" using local short-haul labor. Among other hurdles, Gaskey points to short-term thinking in the face of the downturn, which put pressure on the distribution chain and encouraged some to bypass distribution in favor of selling direct. Shrinking margins, meanwhile, have hurt the profitability of the distribution sector.
With the economy now picking up, but the housing market still struggling to achieve a full rebound, Gaskey believes pent-up demand for building materials will trigger improvement for the industry -- but slowly and steadily over the next two to three years rather than in a single fell swoop anytime soon. "My guess," he predicts, "is that business will gradually improve to a point where it is okay ... but it'll be so gradual that we won't know when it got ok."
In the meantime, MJB is uniquely positioned to weather the transition. Not only is it a global operation serving North America, Europe, and Asian markets, it also has earned the distinction of being a distributer, manufacturer, and wholesaler all in one. The company additionally prides itself on being "technology-driven," boasting what Gaskey claims is "the best" inventory management system in the country. The proprietary software helps customers reduce paperwork and lower costs and, Gaskey reports, the firm's clients "swear by it." Additionally, MJB will continue to leverage its membership in NBMDA as a business booster. "All of the events I've attended are really well done and are just real good networking and cross-sharing of information," says Gaskey, MJB's point man with the industry group. "I've been able to develop new supply channels through that network, and I find it's a great place to get together with our current suppliers."