Real versus surreal

While attending a meeting with the Home Improvement Research Institute, a Home Channel News editor made a side trip to another important South Florida institution that could help us all better understand our industry.

This institution is called The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. (Note to accounting: The $10 admission ticket and $3 parking are now officially “business related.”) And it does so by preparing us for the surreal in our world.

The impressive waterfront building is home to a renowned collection of Dalí masterworks. Our tour was led by a woman who was wearing a shoe as a hat. On the surreality scale, we’ll give that a rating of two melting clocks, out of a possible five. 

A painting called “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln” gets three melting clocks because, almost in defiance of reality, it becomes a portrait of Lincoln at 20 meters.

And around the corner is a hologram of Alice Cooper, as if he were miniaturized and trapped in a glass box. In reality, Cooper is playing golf somewhere in California, but there he is. Surreality rating: four melting clocks.

One can argue that the strangeness on display in the Dalí museum prepares home channel executives for the seemingly unreal nature of our own industry.

For instance: Here are some of the headlines describing June’s residential construction report: “June housing starts smash expectations,” “Home starts surge,” and “Housing starts soar.” All true. But what is surreal here is that these headlines describe a month, which in unadjusted data, produced 45,300 single-family starts, the slowest June on record. Surreality rating: four melting clocks.

In the home channel, Tractor Supply, on July 20, posted a record quarter. It beat earnings estimates. Sales grew by double digits, and comps increased 4.6%. The company made $91 million in profit, up 18% from the prior-year quarter. All without any hurricanes to boost traffic. The next day, the stock price sank more than 5%. Surreality rating: five melting clocks.

(Even after the dramatic decline, an investor who bought a share of TSCO a year ago has doubled his money. Surreality rating: two melting clocks.)

Saint-Gobain Adfors drywall tape previously made in China is now being made in the United States. Zero melting clocks, so far. But the tape in question is a product sold in Japan. It turns out the packaging and aesthetics have to be perfect, or it won’t sell in Japan. Two melting clocks. 

At ProBuild Holdings, the sliding scale of surreality runs like this. Departure of former CEO Paul Hylbert: two melting clocks; the more recent departure of CEO Bill Myrick: three melting clocks; the subsequent departure of EVP operations Jim Cavanaugh, thanks to a cumulative effect: four melting clocks. Senior editor Brae Canlen looks into the company, its leadership and its challenges in a story beginning on page 12.

The Home Improvement Research Institute is doing its part to ground industry understanding in reality — pooling research spending across 80 companies. They are to be commended. (Full disclosure: the non-profit organization is managed by Lebhar-Friedman, parent company of Home Channel News.) And the Dalí museum is doing its part to brace the world for its natural strangeness.

— Ken Clark

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