Interview with APA President Dennis Hardman
APA-The Engineered Wood Association shares his views on the state of the industry and the association.
It’s been a tough few years for the structural wood panel and engineered wood products industry. What’s your assessment of the challenges facing the industry at this point?
DH: Where do I start? Market demand, of course, is still the primary problem. North American structural wood panel production last year was 26.07 billion square feet on a 3/8” basis. That was almost identical to 2010, and we’re still way below the 43 billion feet at the peak of the housing market in 2005. So we have a long road of recovery ahead of us. There is also the ongoing challenge of safeguarding industry interests in codes and standards. Recently, for example, we’ve been working to gain fairer treatment of wood products in the International Energy Conservation Code. In addition, the industry faces numerous regulatory challenges, such as the Boiler MACT issue, ever more stringent formaldehyde emissions limits, growing green building requirements, among others. And there is the continuing federal timber supply problem in much of the West. So there’s no shortage of challenges.
What’s the industry production forecast for this year and beyond? Are things looking up?
DH: We’re now forecasting U.S. and Canadian plywood and OSB production to rise this year by about 1.9 billion square feet, and to continue to increase next year and beyond. By 2016, we expect U.S. and Canadian structural wood panel production to be back at around 37 billion square feet, or about a 40 percent increase from 2011.
What about the other engineered wood products that APA represents?
DH: Same thing. Glulam, wood I-joists and laminated veneer lumber should all experience strengthening demand as the economy in general and the housing market in particular improve. Production of I-joists looks especially promising, almost doubling by 2016 from the 2011 volume.
So, you’re expecting some improvement now in the housing market?
DH: Yes, we believe we have hit or are very close to hitting the bottom of the market. We’re forecasting a 15 percent increase in U.S. housing starts this year compared with 2011. Looking farther ahead, we think U.S. single-family and multifamily starts could reach 1.4 million by 2016. The problem right now is the continuing high inventory of unsold existing homes, including the millions that are in foreclosure. We also need to see stabilization and then increases in home values in order to renew consumer confidence and investment.
What about exports? Those have been strong, correct?
DH: Yes. North American plywood and OSB exports, excluding shipments between the two countries, totaled 1.23 billion square feet last year, the highest volume in 12 years. That’s been fueled by the weak domestic markets, which have made manufacturers here more aggressive in selling overseas. As domestic demand improves, more of that product is likely to remain in North America, so exports are expected to slow. Conversely, imports have declined recently, but are likely to pick up again as the North American market improves and becomes more attractive to offshore producers.
The industrial market is especially important to plywood manufacturers. How’s that market looking?
DH: Solid. Demand in industrial markets declined by about 7 and 8 percent, respectively, in 2008 and 2009, but rose by 6 percent in 2010 and another 3 percent or so last year. We expect the rate of growth to remain at about 3 percent per year over the next several years.
You cited regulatory matters as among other industry challenges, including energy codes. What’s the issue there?
DH: That has to do with the International Energy Conservation Code, or IECC, which in late 2010 approved changes that in effect unfairly favor foam sheathing over structural wood panels. We did a study that indicated those changes could represent a potential U.S. market demand loss of approximately 905 million square feet of structural wood panels. That’s almost 20 percent of the structural wood panel wall sheathing market. So it’s a big deal.
How are you addressing that challenge?
DH: We helped last year to establish an independent coalition of wood products industry manufacturers and associations, called the Coalition for Fair Energy Codes. It has a twofold purpose: first, to ensure that identified priority states adopt energy codes that allow for the continued use of cost-effective building envelope design options that include oriented strand board, plywood and lumber framing, and second, to influence development of future energy codes, including the 2015 IECC, to ensure structural wood products and systems are appropriately regulated and not disadvantaged in their acceptance and use in the marketplace.
What does the coalition do exactly?
DH: It has several functions, including federal government-level education, monitoring and attempting to influence state energy codes and legislation, assembling technical data and information in support of credible energy code policy positions, establishing alliances with other industry partners and supports, and communicating key messages to stakeholder groups. I’m happy to report that our state efforts have been largely successful to date, but we still have a lot of work to do.
What are APA’s strategic priorities this year?
DH: Our priorities are based on a strategic plan that has four chief goals as established by our Board of Trustees. The first is maintaining an independent certification program that assures member compliance with product and performance standards, and that also performs a leading role in setting industry standards. The second is protecting and growing wood product market share. The third is strengthening the voice of the industry through APA membership expansion and strategic partners. And finally, the fourth goal is exercising fiscal responsibility and maintaining organizational effectiveness.
You mentioned membership expansion. Has APA’s membership been affected by the recession?
DH: Actually, we’ve increased our membership quite substantially, with approximately 20 new member mills added to the ranks since 2009. Those are fairly evenly split between the U.S. and Canada, and represent most of the products for which APA provides services. During that same period, we have not lost a single mill other than through closure. So we’re quite proud of that record. We consider it a remarkable statement of faith in the strategic direction and value proposition of APA during a period of extreme financial pressure on most wood product manufacturing companies. Our strong membership base positions APA very well for the eventual climb out of this down market.
You also mentioned strategic partnerships. What are some of those and what are their purposes?
DH: One of the longest standing examples is our participation in the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service cooperator program, which each provides sizeable grants in support of our international market development efforts. Another example is the Wood Products Council, of which APA is a charter member. The council administers a nonresidential construction market program, called WoodWorks, that is designed to increase wood product demand in that market. Still another example is the Canada Wood Group, an alliance of mostly Canadian wood products industry associations that coordinates funding for international market development projects sponsored by the Canadian and British Columbian governments. APA is a member of the Coalition for Advanced Wood Structures, a university, industry and government partnership whose mission is to identify and execute cooperative research and technology leading to improvement of wood structures. We also have a close relationship with industry suppliers through the Engineered Wood Technology Association, which is a related APA organization that serves as a networking and information exchange vehicle for manufacturers and suppliers. And also, as I mentioned, we participate in the Coalition for Fair Energy Codes in partnership with the American Wood Council. In fact, the day-to-day operations of CFEC are managed by an APA staff member, and APA provides program budget accounting and financial reporting services for the group. We also have longstanding relationships with the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, American Wood Council, Green Building Strategy Group, Institute for Business and Home Safety, National Association of Home Builders, Canadian Wood Council, American Forest & Paper Association, FPInnovations in Canada, to name a few.
With regard to organizational effectiveness, how has APA adjusted or responded to the budget constraints that you must have faced when the economy collapsed?
DH: Well, like almost everyone else in this industry and throughout the country, we had to go through some painful staff and budget cuts, and then adjust our priorities in accordance with the most important needs of our members. That gave rise to the four-point strategic plan that I mentioned earlier. Obviously, quality certification is among the most important of those member needs, so we’ve devoted a lot of resources to making sure that we continue to operate the best quality certification program in the industry. I would add that the APA Board continues to review incremental investment that would be necessary to restore APA functions and activities to some pre-recession baseline level, once conditions permit. That’s important to our being as prepared as possible to capitalize on market development and other strategic opportunities as the economy and market improve.
Speaking of the APA Board of Trustees, who serves on it?
DH: The APA Board is comprised of 15 executive-level members who reflect the broad product mix, geographic range and diverse size of APA member companies. We also have an APA member advisory committee system that is actively involved in formulating recommendations and developing program plans related to market development, technical services, quality services, glulam and I-joist/LVL, mill safety, etc.
Given the very difficult business conditions over the past few years, what APA accomplishments are you most proud of?
DH: I’d have to say the strong member support that we’ve had during this period is certainly high on the list. That speaks, I think, to the dedication and expertise of the APA staff, and also to the excellent strategic guidance we’ve received from the APA Board and advisory committees. I’m also proud that despite budget constraints, we have continued to refine and improve our quality certification services, and have remained a globally recognized leader in the standards promulgation arena. I think we have done a good job of protecting market share through a variety of highly targeted promotional programs. And I’m proud of the increased recognition within APA and among APA’s members of the importance of safety, although I really need to give credit there to former APA Chairman and current APA Trustee Jeff Wagner of LP, who is passionate on that subject. Jeff was the leading force in reorganizing the annual APA mill safety awards competition and in forming a new APA mill safety advisory committee.
Finally, what’s the biggest lesson from the last few years of depressed markets?
DH: Clearly, within APA, we’ve learned a lot about efficiencies and essential member values. As market demand improves we will definitely apply those lessons to rebuilding.
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