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Local product competes on quality

WESTERN Australia is Australia’s biggest exporter of timber furniture and the third largest exporter of furniture.

Ian Hearn, president of the Furnishings Industry Association, believes the WA furniture industry can do better, however, and has the potential to take that title of largest exporter of furniture.

The industry currently exports $55 million worth of furniture overseas and interstate, according to Mr Hearn, and, given sufficient government support, there was no reason that figure could not increase to $200 million.

Led by the large-scale producers of outdoor furniture, the WA furniture industry has grown dramatically in the past 10 years, increasing from what was a low base to its current consumption of 80,000 cubic metres of timber a year.

Large manufacturers such as Jenson Jarrah have built an international reputation for outdoor furniture and now employ about 100 people.

However, Mr Hearn said he had concerns that companies such as Jenson Jarrah would face a brick wall in the future because the State Government’s jarrah allocation allowed little room for businesses in the furniture industry to continue to grow.

He said the negative impact of the reduced jarrah allocation was yet to be felt in the industry, but would in the future.

“The only competitive edge the WA producer has on the international market is jarrah,” Mr Hearn said.

“We are not the world’s best manufacturers, we are respected as quality manufacturers, but not like Italy is respected.”

He said it was the wonderful uniqueness of jarrah that allowed WA furniture manufacturers to be noticed, and the resource had to be used as a lever in creating further export markets.

While he agreed that current initiatives to produce a greater design focus within the WA furniture industry would ultimately have an effect on the amount of wood used in a piece of furniture, Mr Hearn said it was small comfort for people currently operating businesses within the industry.

“Not to be ungrateful to the $1 million of funding for the industry, but it needs so much more.”

Mr Hearn said the Malaysian furniture industry was a good example of the benefits of government backing the industry.

He said that, with government support, Malaysia was able to build up a furniture industry based on rubberwood, a timber that had a number of inherent problems.

Canada and China are other examples of countries that have injected significant funds into their industries, to great economic benefit. 

According to Mr Hearn, China’s exports to the US are valued in the billions of dollars.

Mr Hearn also believes WA’s local jarrah product also had a chance of competing with China’s economies of scale.

“It will always be the top end of the furniture market, but provided there is a great story about our native timbers and fascinating stories for the consumer to hear about the piece, then it will compete,” he said.

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