China on My Mind

Christina Lewellen
September 1, 2008
COLUMN : Talking to Dealers | Strategies & Practices

By the time you’re reading this, the Beijing Summer Olympics will have long since closed. But as I write this, we’re deep into Olympic obsession mode (at least my household is). I know the Olympics themselves are now yesterday’s news, but if you’ll indulge a gal a bit, I’m hoping to strike up a conversation about China.

About four years ago, not long after I first landed in this industry, I wrote a three-part series on China and how it was impacting the window and door industry. Most people were uttering the name of the massive country with an edge in their voice, as if it were a four-letter word. But I quickly discovered that, like in many industries, there was also a gang of companies that dove head-first into China—learning to navigate the customs and business challenges to find opportunity in the burgeoning market. Appropriately enough, we titled the series, “China: Threat, Source & Opportunity,” and we used the three parts to explore those three angles.

It goes without saying that people in this industry have varying opinions about China and the whole threat-vs.-opportunity argument, but what we pointed out four years ago stands true today: like it or not, it’s not a brilliant game plan to ignore China. One of the most poignant quotes from that series came from the executive of a large U.S. window manufacturing company who saw China as an opportunity, not only for sourcing some nondescript components, but also for the domestic Chinese market going crazy with construction: “Anybody that says [window manufacturers] are not outsourcing is not being truthful,” he asserted. “I visited factories [in China] that are making window hardware that all the top names in the industry are putting their label on.”

Four years ago, that executive’s statement implied that some manufacturers were ashamed of their outsourced components, but what I’m wondering today is this—has that stigma ebbed a bit? For all the fuss the U.S. media made about the Chinese sprint to the finish line with Olympics planning, pollution and infrastructure, the Games were beautiful, the Bird’s Nest stadium was a marvel and I’m just optimistic enough to buy into the idea that China was dipping its toe (or maybe jumping head first) into the 21st century. Millions of Americans tuned in for the games and I’m guessing that one or two of them set aside their preconceived notions about China and walked away with a different impression of the world’s most populous country.

I’m figuring the majority of window and door specialty dealers, especially those in the custom replacement and retrofit market segments, don’t consider China much of a competitive threat. And that makes sense. Just as U.S. manufacturers struggle to navigate China’s barely-existent building materials distribution channels, it’s not exactly easy for a Chinese window manufacturer to service a dealer in North Carolina. But as the Olympics came across the airwaves and all those images of a budding economy slapped me in the face, I realized that I’ve been essentially “ignoring” China from an industry perspective since I wrote that series four years ago—and four years is a generation in “China time.” I’m wondering now what I’ve missed. I’m assuming specialty dealers aren’t being affected by Chinese imports because the ones I’ve met with aren’t. But I haven’t met you all (yet) and some of you might finding opportunity, sourcing options and threats coming from China.

I’m departing for China—my very first time—in early October. I’ll be visiting Shanghai and Suzhou. If you can give me a hint about what I’ve missed in the last few years, I’d be forever grateful. Manufacturers and suppliers, I’m sure plenty of you have some stories to tell about your experiences with China since 2004, but dealers, I’m also interested to hear from you. Has China started creeping into your business or haven’t I missed much while I’ve been sleeping?

As long as I haven’t thrown officials for a loop with my constantly-changing hairstyles, I expect my visa and passport back any day now. Not everyone in our industry is ready to deal with China, but I sure am anxious to see what all the fuss is about. Wish me luck and a healthy plane ride!

Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at clewellen@glass.org.