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Industry Watch

Some provocative thoughts on marketing Canadian forest products

By Jim Stirling

One of the many positive elements of the Forest Expo Show is the people and ideas that seem effortlessly and inevitably encountered. From casual chats to formal business seminars and idle eavesdropping, the three days of Canada's top forestry show produce a stimulating mix of takes on our industry's issues. Well, okay, sometimes they're not that stimulating- but they're usually as informative as a good equipment salesman's spiel.

During Forest Expo held in Prince George, BC last May, Logging and Sawmilling Journal met John Alderliesten. He's completed the second year of a four-year Forest Resource Technology program at the College of New Caledonia's Vanderhoof campus as a mature student. He entered an essay writing contest sponsored by Forest Renewal BC in which he delivered some provocative thoughts about how BC (and by extension other provinces) can become more assertive and proactive in the global market for forest products. (What FRBC is doing in this role is debatable, Mr. Alderliesten notwithstanding, but then it's probably better than the forest industry helping underwrite the BC Millenium Book Project's traipse across the province seeking residents' signatures for who knows what purpose).

Alderliesten's contention is that wood product manufacturers need to be taught what they can sell rather than sell what they can manufacture. This is not revolutionary stuff, but it is pertinent and Alderliesten accurately identifies a growing need. He has an idea how to satisfy it.

"I believe we need market facilitators. We need someone to bring the buyers and sellers together. We need someone to tell us what the customers' needs are and tell the potential customers what we can produce. Even the general public needs to become more aware of how the wood we produce is being used," writes Alderliesten.

"We need someone to tell us what the customers' needs are and tell the potential customers what we can produce ."

Having got our attention he pursues his point. He notes a traditional Japanese home contains more than 20 different metric sizes of dimension lumber. The Japanese also use BC wood to package car and machinery parts. Asia has a market for softwood flooring. Germans love our edge grain Douglas fir window stock and the Swedes use BC wood pellets to power and heat their cities. That's what we know. But it's the tip of the proverbial iceberg theory. What about the people in Singapore, Spain or Bahrain? "What role does wood play in their daily lives?" he asks pointedly.

He believes market facilitators-the new middlemen-would share information on emerging (current and future) market trends. Making sales teams and the public aware of other countries' use of wood and some of the legal and cultural barriers that might or do restrict entry to a market would be useful information. "Tell us what it takes to make connections in Germany. Every country has its own unique set of conditions and preferences. By putting the spotlight on those markets, our people get ideas on products to make, what will sell and what might sell ."

That's a good point. Information on what markets not to pursue can be as valuable as knowing which ones a wood product manufacturer with a specific fibre source, processing equipment and people might reasonably access.

Understanding, appreciating and accommodating another country's "wood culture" is an imperative, especially with increasingly important niche marketing strategies. Not everyone wants generic McDonald's hamburgers.

"Even with the Internet and the era of multiculturalism," writes Alderliesten, "our kids are not learning enough about how other cultures live and work. You need to know this to market products to them ." Alderliesten can't resist taking a deserved swipe at the learning resources his college class has to use. Its forest products textbook was written in 1935. At least it's the third edition, printed in 1981. "Are they saying the world hasn't changed?" he asks. Wouldn't it help if we understood GATT, NAFTA, WTO and MAI and how forest certification and the soon-to-be-defunct softwood lumber agreement affect how wood product manufacturers go about their business? Again, Alderliesten raises a valid point, one that educational institutions should take to heart.

Given that Alderliesten's on to something with his market facilitator information sharing proposal, the questions become more pragmatic. Where do these market facilitators come from and who will train them and pay their salaries? Alderliesten is leery about handing the issue over to government: he knows more than just how to compose a useful essay. That leaves the options of using an existing group/agency or establishing a new one. The latter option is unappealing and would require a supportive bureaucracy. FRBC is too close to government to be independent and frankly lacks credibility.

The organization has proven most adept at spending the forest industry's money, especially in sustaining itself, but overall has proven a disappointment. More promising is the BC Council of Value Added Wood Processors, and the Council of Forest Industries of BC and regional affiliates like the Northern Forest Products Association. These organizations have marketing experts and an information disseminating network. However, they respond to and are supported by their member companies. A key element in Alderliesten's suggestion is for a market information system with broader access. Perhaps that's not an insurmountable problem and a mechanism could be formulated to move toward Alderliesten's thesis.

At the very least, the notion is worthy of further discussion on a wider basis. Our ability to sell forest products is elemental to the industry's development, job provision ability and our economic wellbeing.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004