Framing the future: For Susan Marvin, leading her family’s window company means putting employees – and the community – first.

Susan Marvin (Courtesy of Susan Marvin)

Susan Marvin, president of Marvin Windows and Doors, is happy to be hiring again for the first time in years. 

“Since 2009 we had done little to no hiring,” Marvin said. “We are experiencing a very slow recovery and we think it will continue.” 

Unlike many company presidents, Marvin has something extra to smile about: She didn’t lay off a single worker during the five-year recession. 

Marvin and other leaders at the family-owned and -operated northern Minnesota business – one of the world’s largest made-to-order window companies, with more than 4,000 employees overall – took an unusual step to deal with profit losses and poor budget forecasts: They cut salaries and wages across the board, reduced employee perks and asked full-time workers to scale back from 40 to 32 hours. 

The company refused to cut research and development budgets, however, and continued to bring new products to market during the recession. And the pay cuts have since been restored. 

By taking care of employees in the short-term, the company took care of itself in the long-term. 

“Our employees truly are our most important asset. Why would we choose to lay them off if we had a choice?” Marvin said. “One of the strengths of our business is that we serve all of our stakeholders: employees, customers and community. This is foundational to a sustainable business.” 

Because the company is privately run, it has greater latitude to forgo immediate profits than do many public companies, which report to shareholders. 

Yet Marvin insists there is a lesson for all of Corporate America. 

“If you take care of those things [employees, customers, community], you take care of your shareholders,” she said. “Sometimes public companies focus disproportionately on short-term gain for their shareholders and this weakens their foundation for long-term sustainability.” 

But don’t think no-layoffs was about anything other than business, Marvin cautions. 

“It is absolutely about the bottom line,” she said. “Profitability is essential because without profits you will not have a business and that doesn’t do anybody any good. It’s just that simple.” 

Bucking business trends

According to the New York Times, there are 5.8 million fewer Americans employed full time, compared with 2007. Simultaneously, there has been an uptick of 2.8 million part-time workers. This is a significant structural change in the nation’s labor force. 

Marvin has gone the opposite direction. It has not significantly increased its part-time labor force or reduced its full-time pool. 

“The vast majority of our workforce [is] full-time employees,” Marvin said. “We are working very hard to attract more full-time employees, in addition to attracting a temporary workforce during peak construction season.” She noted that the company is currently hiring full-time and temporary employees for professional, technical and production positions. 

“We want to provide employees fair wages, good benefits and secure work,” she said. 

Other business developments Marvin must navigate include the increasingly competitive bottom line. More and more competitors are willing to cut quality in order to reduce prices, Marvin said. That requires more time educating salespeople and consumers about the value and quality of Marvin windows, she said. 

“These buyers are thinking, ‘I have to get a lower price,’ and I can guarantee you that it’s often coming out of the quality of the product,” she said. “There are always people who are willing to invest in quality. We work harder to find them.” The company is doing a strong business in the restoration and preservation niche, she added.

Family values

Marvin’s grandfather, George Marvin founded the Marvin Lumber and Cedar Co. in Warroad, Minn., in 1912. In 1961, the company suffered a devastating fire when the plant burned to the ground. There was insurance, but not enough to cover the entire cost of rebuilding. 

The company’s commitment to employees – and to the community – was obvious when Marvin’s grandfather and father refused to relocate the business after the fire, even though they had lucrative offers to do so. 

At the request of the Marvins, the general contractor hired Marvin employees idled by the fire; thus, the new plant was built by many of the same hands that made – and still make – its windows and doors. The city not only endorsed the project but also paid for water and sewer lines for the new factory. Loans came from the Minnesota Rural Electric Co. and the federal Small Business Administration. And so the company came roaring back. 

“Our relationships with the community and with our customers have contributed to our success,” Marvin said. 

Marvin graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in journalism, planning to become an English teacher like her mother. But being a part of the Marvin family changed that, and she, along with her siblings, have continued the work of their grandfather, father and uncles. Currently, there are 12 fourth-generation Marvins coming up the ranks, as well. 

Advice for girls and women

Marvin was reluctant to offer advice exclusively to women and girls, saying: “This is not a gender thing at all.” 

“Business isn’t rocket science,” she said. “It is providing value, providing something someone else wants and at a good value, executing well and taking care of all of your stakeholders.” 

Marvin said gender might be a disadvantage in something like an NFL career, but not in business; if anything, it has helped her, she said. 

“The only advice I would give women in a male-dominated field is … that I think we are best-served doing our jobs the best we can and focusing on that,” she said. 

When you perceive gender bias, don’t validate it, she says. “Don’t look for problems where they don’t exist and if there are gender problems, ignore them,” Marvin said. “Don’t give those who discriminate any kind of credibility by letting them take any of your energy or time.” 

She added: “There was a time when it was very, very unusual for a woman to be a business professional in the building industry. Sometimes it worked for you and sometimes it didn’t. 

“I found it worked for me far more often than not.”