Family name: Marvin
What it does: Designs and manufactures made-to-order windows and doors for new construction, remodels, and replacements
Type of ownership: Private, 100 percent family-owned
Number of employees: 4,200
Number of family members employed by the business: 15
Number of family members on the board: 6
Generation currently involved in the business: Third and fourth
1912 George Marvin establishes the Marvin Timber & Cedar Company.
1939 George’s son Bill joins the company; after World War II, he spearheads shift to window products.
1960 Bill Marvin named chairman and president.
1961 Fire destroys Warroad plant, the company rebuilds and remains in the small northern Minnesota town.
1979 Company builds the first round-top window, opening the door to new custom projects.
1986 Bill Marvin becomes CEO.
Late 1980s Company begins selling internationally with the opening of a Japanese distributor.
1994 Company develops and patents Ultrex, a fiberglass product.
1995 Susan Marvin assumes role of president.
2000 Jake Marvin takes over as CEO.
2005 The company opens the 30,000-square-foot William S. Marvin Training and Visitor Center, where the public is invited to learn about the company’s history of innovation and community involvement.
2009 Company launches myMarvin Architect’s Challenge, a contest that allows architects to submit photos of their Marvin projects. The company selects winners to be displayed on its website, then flies them to Warroad to tour Marvin’s factory.
The narrative of the typical family business runs thus: The first generation starts it, the second grows it, and the third either sells it or fails, says Paul Marvin, director of materials for Marvin Windows and Doors. “But we’ve successfully made it to the fourth.”
The Marvin family business has navigated an array of potentially debilitating challenges during its century in business, and the resilient company today employs 4,200, including 15 family members. Paul Marvin is one of 12 members of the fourth generation—or, as he calls it, the “cousin generation”—that currently runs the family-owned business under the guidance of three third-generation leaders.
George Marvin founded the business in Warroad in 1912 as Marvin Timber & Cedar Company (incorporated at Marvin Lumber & Cedar in 1920). In the early days, it operated a lumber mill and grain elevator; it also sold pulpwood to northern Minnesota paper mills. Amid an annual winter slowdown at the lumber mill, George and his son Bill, who joined the family business in 1939, recognized a need for expansion to provide jobs for returning World War II veterans. In a move that forever changed Marvin’s course, he invested in woodworking machinery and began manufacturing windows and doors.
Today, three third-generation Marvins—Chairman and CEO Jake, President Susan, and Senior Vice President of Operations George—are at the helm of Marvin Companies, the holding company of Marvin Window and Doors (wood and aluminum-clad wood products), Integrity Windows and Doors (made with Ultrex, a fiberglass that undergoes an acrylic finishing process), and Infinity Replacement Windows (which also use Ultrex). Integrity products are sold both to the new-construction and replacement markets.
The family attributes its success to an unwavering commitment to the long term—for the company and the communities in which it operates. “We all have the same goal: The success of the business is more important than any of our individual needs or successes,” says Susan Marvin. “When it comes to making hard decisions, you step back, take yourself out of it, and ask, ‘What will make the business sustainable?’ ”
Marvin now operates a 2 million-square-foot factory and employs roughly 2,000 in Warroad—serving as the key employer for the town of 1,780 near the Canadian border and the surrounding communities. The Marvins socialize with workers’ families at hockey games and the grocery store, and a long history of profit-sharing also demonstrates their commitment to employees.
Founder George’s contributions to Warroad ranged widely: donating Christmas trees to local families, buying mortgages from a failed bank, allowing local farmers to pay back debts over time rather than risk losing their land. More recently, the company and Marvin family members have supported the construction of civic facilities and have funded academic scholarships.
The values George instilled “formed a rudder on this ship,” says Paul Marvin. “The family tree is bigger, but the roots are the same.” Christine Marvin, director of marketing and a fourth-generation Marvin, concurs: “If you get everyone aligned to share long-term values, decisions fall in place.”
The Marvins’ values have withstood difficult circumstances, beginning with a 1961 fire that destroyed the Warroad plant. “We went from a growing, viable business one day to having nothing the next day,” says Susan Marvin. Bill received offers from other states to relocate, but Susan says he never even considered it. Rather, with loans secured, he hired a contractor and stipulated that it use Marvin employees to help build the new facility.
A second key challenge came in 1980, when a supplier’s faulty preservative caused some Marvin products to deteriorate. Marvin spent tens of millions of dollars replacing defective windows. During that difficult period, not a single one of its dealers departed. (Marvin eventually won more than $135 million in a lawsuit against the supplier; employees reaped a portion of the settlement via profit sharing.)
The downturn in the housing market has presented the latest, and ongoing, challenge. But Marvin entered the recession without debt and with cash in the bank, and it had recently introduced a new product that works as well for renovation as for new construction.
As competitors shuttered mills, went bankrupt, or were sold to private equity firms, Marvin never entertained the thought of a sale, Susan Marvin says: “So much of my life has been such an investment in the business that there’s far greater satisfaction and pride that comes from seeing it go into the next generation than there would be from selling it, pocketing the money, and going away.”
Marvin slashed salaries by 5 percent, cut hours, and suspended some benefits—but two measures remained off-limits. “We reduced our expenditures in any way we could—except we did not lay people off or touch health care,” Susan Marvin says.
Marvin’s vow to avoid layoffs “speaks to a long-term vision and desire to maintain communities in which we live, work, and play,” Christine Marvin says. (The company’s commitment to its workforce was detailed in the New York Times, and President Barack Obama has lauded the company during televised speeches, including at the Democratic National Convention in August.)
Susan Marvin recalls meeting with other leaders amid the recession who coldly discussed layoff plans—the same leaders who a year before had described their employees as their most valuable asset. “But if they’re you’re most important asset, why would you cut them?” she asks.
Marvin currently operates plants in Minnesota, North Dakota, Tennessee, Oregon, and Virginia. Its first international sales were to Japan in the late ’80s; it now serves customers in the Americas, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. The family is tight-lipped about revenue, and even Dun & Bradstreet’s database does not offer a current estimate. (A Twin Cities Business report estimated that Marvin Windows and Doors, the largest of Marvin’s companies, generated about $600 million in 2006.)
Susan Marvin acknowledges that the company remains “off our peak,” but she adds that it has picked up market share, retained loyal customers, and benefited from worker attrition throughout the downturn. “We’re doing really heavy lifting in strategic planning to leverage every bit of growth the market allows,” she asserts.
Consistent product innovation is Marvin’s modus operandi. Early on, the company billed itself as the first “made-to-order” manufacturer in the industry—one that assembled each door and window to order and delivered them by truck. This allowed Marvin to be more responsive to customer needs, while dealers boosted profits by eliminating inventories of pre-assembled products.
When some mistook Marvin’s “made-to-order” slogan to mean “custom,” the misperception ultimately “fueled our growth,” Susan says. In 1979, the company reintroduced the round-top window, a style that had been used in historical buildings but that other companies refused to make at the time. In 1994, Integrity introduced its Ultrex brand, which uses fiberglass—a “superior, durable building material” compared with the vinyl used in most products on the market—that undergoes the company’s patented acrylic finishing process, Susan Marvin says. And, she notes, “Competitors have not caught up.” Meanwhile, succession is an ongoing process. Marvin children are encouraged to obtain an education and pursue interests outside of the family business, but parents hope they’ll return to take the baton. “Pursuing outside opportunities early in your career gives you the chance to sharpen your skills and refine your interests—and make some mistakes—without the spotlight and expectations that inevitably come with being a family member working for the family business,” says Paul Marvin, who ran a Twin Cities school bus company before returning to his family’s business. “It also gives you a chance to come back to the company with a unique outside perspective.”
Only family members who work full time at Marvin receive an ownership stake. “It’s meant to encourage, or in fact mandate active involvement,” Paul Marvin says. Furthermore, the Marvins value an individual’s strengths more than his or her lineage. “I don’t think we’d be successful if any of us had a sense of entitlement,” says Susan Marvin, who worked summer jobs at Marvin from the age of 12, left the state after college for an advertising job, and returned to the family business in 1981.
The family also values external input, and Marvin’s nine-member board includes three non-family members who are “able to step outside the business, see it objectively, and dispense advice dispassionately—which is difficult for a family,” says Susan Marvin.
One such director, attorney Steve Tourek, has worked with the Marvins for 35 years—first representing them via his private practice and today as senior vice president and general counsel. He says the Marvins have “always understood they couldn’t have built the business without loyal and talented non-family members.”
The company’s longevity is “empirical evidence” that the Marvins have struck the proper balance between “building a worthy purpose that employees have bought into and want to be associated with, and an adaptability to consider outside input,” Tourek says. As the company begins its second century, third-generation Marvins are now identifying who among the fourth best fit leadership positions, while the fifth generation is also being groomed to carry on their predecessors’ values.
“I feel very, very confident in the future of the company,” says Susan Marvin. “The fourth generation is committed, responsible, and working hard. We will have left the company in very good hands, and it’s my most sincere hope that they do likewise for their children.”