Destination Unknown

Photo by Richard Masoner / CC 2.0 License

By Emerson Schwartzkopf Back in my college days (yes, way back through the decades), I first heard the old tale of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and the train ticket. It seems that Holmes, a noted member of the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 20th century, boarded a train out of Washington one morning, and the conductor came down the aisle, asking passengers to show their tickets. He came upon a strange sight when he reached Holmes’ seat: one of the most-esteemed citizens of the country was frantically searching through every pocket, his portfolio, and even the inside of his hat. “Mr. Holmes,” the conductor said, “you really don’t have to show me your ticket. I’m sure the railroad would be honored to allow you free access to our line, and I’ll talk to ….” “Dad-blast it man,” replied Holmes in a huff. “I know I’ve paid for my seat. I just can’t remember where I’m going.” That’s 2020 for me and a lot of people in the hard-surfaces trade. The train keeps moving, and we’re still in our seats – but nobody really has any idea of where it’s heading. Rolling through economic cycles used to be predictable, albeit not painless. Cheerful order-taking turned into tough sales turndowns, fewer cars appeared in the parking lot, budget items replaced the brand-names in the grocery cart, and you finally started to get more work (without earning more, at first) to reverse the process. The Great Recession of the early 21st century hammered the hard-surface industry. The runaway growth of fabricators and suppliers rode the housing-finance bubble, and it took years to get back on a growth track. Many businesses didn’t make it. I can speak directly to that, as the industry magazines I edited, including Stone Business, slowly circled the drain before going down the pipe. The Great Recession changed the world of publishing in ways we’re still seeing today, including that you’re reading this on a screen and not in a printed magazine. The hard-surfaces industry finally started going uphill in the mid-2010s, although most people kept a wary eye out for another downturn. The shock of the recent bad times gave an uneasy feeling to success. And then, COVID-19. Lockdowns. Cancelled trade events. Suspended business travel. Work schedules shredded. Swabs. Masks. And gallons upon gallons of hand sanitizer. This time, though, the hard-surface industry didn’t collapse Things slowed down in the second quarter, and plenty of fabricators jumped into government payroll loans to keep things shored up. There were layoffs and failures, but nothing like the killing zone of 2009-2010. There’s still that nagging feeling: Not yet, anyway. Business still comes in the door. The train keeps moving. But yet … Where are we going? This should be the place for a pithy answer, but I confess that I don’t know our destination, either. Are business increases during the summer the result of pent-up demand during lockdowns, or signs of a quick, ongoing recovery? Will people feel confident enough to make big purchases as we head into the fall season? And what happens if vaccines to arrest the spread of COVID-19 are very slow to appear in 2021, let alone late 2020? None of us can answer those questions right now. We can stay nimble in the short-term and focus on going somewhere new instead of trying to recreate the past, pre-pandemic world. Don’t wait for the conductor. Write your own ticket.