A Lot of Hard Work

John G. Swanson
December 14, 2011
COLUMN : Opening Remarks

Last year was tough for the industry. But as 2011 winded down, there were new signs of hope.

Single-family home sales were inching up, as was builder confidence, as measured by the National Association of Home Builders. Challenges persist in the housing market, said David Crowe, NAHB's chief economist, but he also predicts "modest, gradual" improvements heading into 2012.

The mood was getting better among small business owners too, according to the National Federation of Independent Business too. Its monthly optimism index remained at weak levels, but there was improvement. Optimism appears to have climbed because fewer owners expect business conditions or sales to be worse in six months, officials noted.

“We should be encouraged, but cautiously so,” said Bill Dunkelberg, NFIB chief economist. "Our current reality is still very much the ongoing economic winter.” He emphasized that optimism levels remain well below during previous economic recoveries. He also noted that the mood was still worse than it had been at the beginning of 2011.

As I recall, talking to window and door manufacturers at the beginning of 2011, there was a bit of optimism in the air. Despite extreme cutbacks in tax credits for energy efficient products, window and door manufacturers, distributors and dealers were expressing hope that the worst was over and business would improve.

Two or three months later, those hopes faded in many places. Sales slipped for many companies. I recall more than a few people describing business as “flat,” adding that they felt pretty good about that. There were exceptions. Companies in some regional markets saw improvements. Manufacturers in the ultra-high-end market seemed to gain momentum also.

But continued weakness in economy weighed heavily on many companies. We had another round of plant closings and layoffs in the last quarter of the year among window and door manufacturers. Dealers tell tales of scratching and clawing for sales.

Listening to most people in the industry now, I get a sense that the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is playing in many heads out there. As 2012 begins, no one has a lot of faith that the housing or remodeling markets as a whole will help us out. There’s not a lot of hope that anything will get done in Washington—much less bringing back tax credits for energy efficient windows and doors.

More than 60 percent of respondents to our Industry Pulse survey, highlighted in the article beginning on page XX, said their sales were likely to grow in the coming year. There’s some optimism in that figure, but respondents were more positive about 2011.

Much of this year's study suggests increased caution. I think that is wise. If there is going to be growth, it will come from new initiatives at individual companies. It will come from new products, new markets, new strategies and a lot of hard work. I have no doubt window and door manufacturers, distributors and dealers are prepared for all that. But let's hope the economy improves a bit more too.