WARROAD, MINN. – If you live in the Twin Cities, the home business is booming. Builders are being issued permits in levels not seen in more than a decade.
However, those numbers are not the same across the country. U.S. housing starts are just half what they were before the Great Recession, said Paul Marvin, who took the helm earlier this month at the family’s window and door business.
The industry is “good, not great,” Marvin said at a recent interview at the Marvin Cos. headquarters campus in Warroad, a small town near the Canadian border. “It’s been a long, slow recovery. It’s surprising just how slow and how long a recovery it’s been. It’s an interesting time for me to come on as CEO.”
Undaunted, Paul Marvin has set an aggressive goal to grow the company’s annual sales by an average 10 percent. “It won’t be easy,” he said.
He doesn’t favor lowering prices. To grow, Paul Marvin envisions a future in which the company pursues new product innovations, “value-added adjacencies” and previously rare acquisitions.
His goal is to bolster Marvin’s well-hewn reputation for high design and customized products. Two years ago, Marvin Cos. bought TruStile, a maker of custom creative interior doors. Unlike the hollow doors sold in hardware stores, TruStile’s doors are high end and made of leather, suede, mirrors and barn wood among other materials.
“Expect more acquisitions like this,” he said. But don’t expect the company to expand into other industries.
“We won’t start buying golf courses. And we will stay centered around the housing industry,” said Marvin, who at 42 is the first of the fourth generation to be CEO of the nearly 6,000-employee company. “Still, some things will have to change.”
Michael O’Brien, president of Window and Door Manufacturers Association, said Marvin’s fourth generation of leaders — which includes Paul, his three siblings and seven cousins — will face challenges.
The entire homebuilding industry is wrestling with labor and land shortages, untapped social media strategies and the nation’s growing demand for “smart house” technologies, he said.
Still, O’Brien is hopeful. Marvin’s new leaders will “bring a new perspective and a new energy to the industry that we all benefit from. The Marvins have always been very involved in this industry,” which generates about $23 billion in U.S. sales each year.
The change in perspective is welcome, said Chairwoman Susan Marvin, granddaughter of founder George Marvin who served 20 years as president of the company. “When I joined the company it had one location and a few hundred employees.”
Today, there are 12 plants, more than 5,500 employees and customers across North America and countries including Spain, Italy, France, Turkey and Japan.
“That requires a different kind of leadership,” Susan Marvin said. The new generation already has started to change the culture.
The company is more open to acquisitions, she said, after the TruStile consolidation went smoothly. TruStile “makes things that make you say, ‘Wow! We’d like to do more of that,’ ” she said.
Plus, change is happening more quickly and there’s a bigger willingness to try new things, said Christine Marvin, the new CEO’s cousin and director of corporate strategy and design.
Marvin recently launched exclusive partnerships with the PBS series “This Old House” and Dwell Magazine. For the 2017-2018 season of “This Old House” that begins airing in November, Marvin is making all the replacement windows and doors for a 108-year-old house in Massachusetts.
Dwell Magazine has partnered with designers and architects on a line of designer prefab homes in California and other spots across the country, all with Marvin windows and doors.
“We are going to be evolving … and breaking barriers,” Christine Marvin said. It will be important to “exercise [our] creative muscles to the max.”
The company also is changing its physical space to stress innovation, she said. It will soon be tearing down walls, lowering cubicle heights and redesigning office space in the Warroad headquarters and its offices in Eagan. The investment should spur impromptu meetings and better staff communication.
Managers are hosting new cross-department employee meetings and arranging for focus groups with window dealers, builders, trades specialists and homeowners. The goal is to spur fresh ideas for better processes, designs, products and growth.
“Everyone came to the table with such different perspectives. That was such a moment of value,” Christine Marvin said. “That diversity of cross-collaboration will give us the potential to solve problems, … learn how to get our brand in front of customers and how to better support our dealers and architects. It’s an exciting time.”
Yet while the changes put in place will help, existing homebuilding trends will continue to drive growth near term.
Right now, U.S. builders, home buyers and businesses are big fans of black window and door frames. And they are increasingly in love with massive windows and doors.
For an example, just stroll into Surly Brewing in Minneapolis. Its mammoth wall of sliding glass doors were built by Marvin. The giant doors easily glide open, neatly collapsing into a hidden pocket wall.
“That trend is growing,” Paul Marvin said. “It started out west in California and is spreading east” as advances in energy efficiency and building codes allow for much more window glass in homes and businesses.
“Once where a ribbon of windows would go into a house, there is now a ribbon of doors,” he said. “We used to have a ratio of 10 windows to every door in a house. Now we have six windows for every door. The windows are getting bigger and more doors are replacing windows.”
On a recent Wednesday, forklifts dashed around one of the Warroad factory floors as four workers bolted 10-foot panes of glass into casement frames and deftly attached hinges, handles and latches. Each window was headed to a specific customer.
“We don’t mass produce,” said curriculum design specialist KarLynn Erickson, while escorting a group past the workers to the loading dock, where completed cathedral-domed windows and towering three-arch doors rested waiting to be packed into semis.
In the building next door, plant manager Forrest Cole stood on a platform overlooking the beehive of woodworking taking place below him. He took it all in and smiled. He’s been at Marvin for 40 years and has never seen anything like the trend that has kept his crew hopping for the past two years.
“The size of the openings has gotten so big,” Cole said.
It’s good news because it means more full-time work for day and night crews. That is a welcome relief from recession days when Marvin had to reduce worker hours, company officials said.
The recession deepened workers’ loyalty to the company, Paul Marvin said. The company cut hours but did not lay off any employees. That ensured that the staff retained their health insurance and other benefits.
Today, attrition is low, Paul Marvin said. “We have a long-standing history of taking care of our stakeholders.”