“So how is it?”
I had just taken my first bite of jellyfish at the Shaoxing Restaurant in Shanghai, China and Peter Howe, Sales and Marketing for Tristar Transload, Inc., was curious as to my impression. Much to my surprise, the crunchy, orange, square-shaped bite — with a texture similar to a Rice Krispies treat — was actually quite good. So far I had held true to my promise to try any and every dish placed in front of me on this trip and Cherry Chen and Joyce Feng, our highly competent tour guides from American Softwoods, did not fail to challenge and excite my tastebuds in their menu selections. One thing’s for sure — lunch and dinner in China proved to be an exciting adventure I anticipated each day.
We were on day three of a Softwood Export Council-hosted Intro to China Trade Servicing Mission that I and 14 other professionals from across the U.S. forest products industry attended from September 9-13 of this year. We had started in Beijing and were ending the trip in stunning Shanghai. At just a little over the halfway mark, I was already giving the trip high marks and the next two days were packed with even more industry tours and activities to look forward to.
If you followed my blog posts from a few weeks ago, you may recall that I wrote a couple of articles that give more information about the Softwood Export Council (SEC) and its Association Company Participation (ACP) Program, which allowed our group to participate in the trip. Be sure to visit those articles if you haven’t already, since they give you a nice background on SEC and how you can take part in international trade missions, softwood product trade shows and industry meetings around the world at a fraction of the cost.
A crash course in the Chinese wood products industry
Interesting cuisine aside, our primary mission for this trip was to get an overview of the Chinese softwood products industry. The SEC‘s office in Shanghai (American Softwoods China) ensured we had a full schedule to do just that. Our master tour guide was Xu Fang, the director of American Softwoods China. His vast knowledge of the Chinese and American softwood markets provided plenty of discussion over the course of the five days.
The enlightening industry tours we took part in included:
The Yangbei Lumber Wholesale Market: Several Northwest, U.S. attendees saw their product sitting in the yard during our visit. Although the lumber market wasn’t stocked anywhere near capacity due to China’s recent slowdown in construction, it was nonetheless exciting to see North American lumber waiting to be put to use.
A walk around the Tianjin Jia Yu Industry & Trade Company allowed us to view their import and wholesale lumber yard. While the company mainly sells lumber and logs, it has created a new division that builds and sells high, medium and low-end North American light timberwork residential homes. We were able to tour a couple of their model wood homes and sit down with company representatives for a chat. They encouraged attendees in our group to start a dialog with them to pursue any potential to sell lumber/wood products to the company.
In a visit to the Zhejiang Fitwell Wood Company, we not only walked through the company’s flooring, furniture, glued panel and glulam beam production facility but toured their model wood-frame homes as well.
The Fitwell wood-frame home building business is brand new and they explained that, as of now, they aim their marketing toward a wealthier demographic looking to build vacation homes. These vacation homes are placed on land leased from the government and are required by law to be nonpermanent. (The Chinese government views concrete structures as permanent and wood ones temporary.)
We learned from company representatives that Chinese wood home buyers typically want a country look with wood visible inside and out — no drywall or non-wood siding. They also stated that the average consumption per square meter in building a wood home for the Chinese market is 20% more than in the U.S. because Chinese buyers have a low tolerance for the creaks and vibrations inherent in wood construction.
The Taicang Port allowed us to see North American logs unloaded from a freighter. Port officials explained that 1.5 million cubic meters of lumber and 4 million cubic meters of logs pass through the facility each year. The Chinese Government is cautious about the transfer of non-native pest species via imported logs. U.S. logs from the lower 48 states must be debarked prior to loading stateside. Canadian and Alaskan (U.S.) logs are tarped and fumigated at the port facility after unloading.
A first-hand look at a lumber processing mill offered up an interesting view of how China’s many micro-sawmills process whole logs. The sawmills are low-tech, using machinery similar to that used decades ago in U.S. sawmills. They feature none of the sophisticated scanning and optimization that gives North American sawmills high lumber recovery. Instead these mills rely on hands-on manpower to move and position logs and lumber for sawing. Chinese sawmills appear to be low cost and efficient; little is wasted as small edgings are used to recover furring strips and trim lumber.
A Shanghai construction site gave us an up-close look at two buildings in close proximity to one another — one a 2×4-framed commercial building, and the other a high-rise primarily using wood for concrete forming.
The final evening’s U.S./China softwood products seminar and reception allowed our group and an audience of around 30 Chinese wood products professionals to hear presentations from both U.S. and Chinese speakers. Topics included an overview of the U.S. softwood lumber industry and market, grading rules of U.S. softwood lumber, U.S. softwood lumber import stats for China, and the use of U.S. softwood lumber in China. The evening reception saw attendees from both countries trading business cards and discussing ways they might do business.
If you’re looking to introduce your softwood products to another country, count the SEC trips as your means to get a first-rate introduction to not only the product markets but the customs of potential customers that help you effectively do business in that country. I have no doubt the SEC’s other trips prove just as worthwhile in exploring the business culture of a country as the one they conduct in China. Even if you’ve never traveled internationally before, an SEC trip offers an easy way to get your feet wet and give you a positive return on investment — in both money and time.
Before the trip, SEC staff provided us with a handy China travel tips reference guide that instructed us on how to conduct ourselves in Chinese business meetings. It served as an excellent cheat-sheet since I was so busy in the weeks before I departed that I didn’t have time to do my usual country research.
Networking with trip attendees
A very positive side benefit of this trip was the close contacts I made within the U.S. delegation itself. There was ample time to get to know my travel companions, both personally and professionally — between sharing good meals, traveling to each day’s destinations, and just enjoying the experiences and sights of an exotic locale. I can’t imagine a better way to build new industry connections. My most memorable moments were the conversations, insight, opinions, and healthy doses of laughter I shared with members of the delegation. More than just a primer on North American softwoods in China, the trip allowed me the opportunity to grow exponentially as a professional in the U.S. softwoods industry and to cultivate a meaningful network of colleagues from across the country.
Mix jet lag with long days touring industry locations and some downtime is necessary to break up the routine. AMSO staff made sure we had time set aside for activities such as hiking the Great Wall and shopping in “barter-friendly” markets. Some nights offered group fun — a visit to a Shanghai acrobatic show and walking tours of the Shanghai waterfront. Other evenings gave those who felt like it an opportunity to share a drink in the hotel or explore a city’s night life on their own.
Our trip hosts
Xu, Cherry, and Joyce of AMSO China, in conjunction with Natalie Macias and Ashlee Tibbets of the SEC, kept our days productive and enjoyable. Translation was a breeze. Xu, Cherry and Joyce speak fluent English and worked hard to connect the right information and Chinese contacts with individual delegates, and that met each person’s specific objectives. The AMSO staff even booked our hotel rooms for us, giving us one less thing to worry about pre-trip.
Ashlee and Natalie provided us with all the information we needed to prepare for the mission — hotel info, currency, electrical current, public transportation usage, dress codes and more — and checklists for the receipts we’d need to save in order to be reimbursed under the ACP Program. I’ve never experienced an easier international trip.
The SEC and AMSO host many softwood industry events around the world. Their event calendar will most likely offer just the event or events you need to help grow your business in countries currently importing U.S. softwood products. From the competence of the staff, trip content, high quality industry contacts and business-building opportunities, I have confidence you’ll find these events extremely worthwhile. Several U.S. delegates on my trip regularly travel with the SEC, which is a strong testament in its own right.
Visit the SEC website for more information on that organization and on American Softwoods offices around the globe.
Tom Waddell is Forest Business Network’s VP of Marketing and Sales.
Special thanks to Gordon Culbertson of Forest2Market for contributing to this article. Forest2Market empowers participants in the forest and wood products and bioenergy industries to make exponentially better-informed decisions through the strategic application of industry expertise and unique price databases.