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At HIRI summit, the focus is on numbers and growth

Chicago -- The unofficial quote of the day came from J. Walker Smith, executive chairman of The Futures Co.: "Screw the economy; you can still be successful in your business."

With that shot over the bow of negativism, the Home Improvement Research Institute's 30th anniversary event, the HIRI Home Improvement Industry Summit, kicked off Wednesday morning with a full slate of presentations. The event brought about 150 research and marketing experts and countless graphs, charts and PowerPoint slides to a conference room on the banks of the Chicago River.

A few minutes after the Commerce Department released a positive housing starts report early Wednesday morning, Josh Rosenbaum, director of the Global Industrial Group, sized up the numbers from the podium at the summit. The 15% increase in starts was countered by a 5% decline in permits, he said. "The housing starts numbers were good. Whether it's real -- we'll find out next month," Rosenbaum said. "Some of it might be a release of pent-up demand."

Mixed macroeconomic signals lurked behind many of the charts. But charismatic presenter Walker Smith stressed that the fault lies in ourselves, not the economy. He pointed to several companies outside the home improvement industry that have shown amazing growth -- Apple, Hyundai and Zappos, for instance. "These companies have shown unprecedented success during the third worst downturn in U.S. economic history," Smith said.

He encouraged attendees not to be intimidated by the macroeconomic trends and he described innovation as the best antidote for sustained down markets.

Relative optimism for the home improvement market continued from an unlikely source: Zelman & Associates, a firm made famous by bearish and accurate outlooks on home builders before the downturn.

"Just like we were early on the bust, the data supported the bust," said Dennis McGill, director of research for Zelman & Associates. "And we feel the data today supports something more optimistic."

The demographics and household growth support a "snap back," he said. Homes are cheap and people know it. New housing stock is going to be required for a growing population, regardless of the type of financing -- rent or own, he said.

"At some point, we have to get up to 1.3 million [starts]," McGill said.

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