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Mac Daddy Windows

My Trip to the Marvin Windows Factory

Posted on Mar 26 2010 by Carl Seville, GBA Advisor

I took the opportunity to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to tour the Marvin Windows factory recently. After spending the weekend with my buddy Michael Anschel in Minneapolis (don’t miss our upcoming presentation at ACI in Austin—North vs. South, A Building Science Smackdown), I met up with my Atlanta contingent at the Marvin company plane for the short flight to the booming metropolis of Warroad, Minn.—population 1722, six miles from Canada.

Reasonably green without the hard sell
Instead of an explicitly green message, we got a soft-sell overview of Marvin's product and corporate culture. They build quality products that are energy efficient, durable, resource efficient, and time tested. The factory looks, as I expected, like a huge wood shop—a combination of traditional tools and lots of new high-tech computerized equipment and systems. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to use our cameras in the factory, so you will have to suffer through my explanations.

One of my two favorite things was an automatic trolley system, kind of like San Francisco’s cable cars. An under-floor track runs continuously around the entire floor at slow speed. Carts are hooked in with magnetic sensors that tell the track system which way to flip railroad-like switches to send the carts full of products to their next location. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Marvin makes their own finger-jointed stock from #2 pine using a sophisticated scanner that, in a matter of seconds, looks at each board; finds knots, warps, and other defects; decides where to make each cut to maximize the value of the material; labels each piece for its best use; and determines a dollar value for the entire piece.

The central dust collection system, sealed with regular old cloth duct tape, provides a constant supply of turkey bedding that Marvin sells to local farmers. Their own scrap wood augments purchased wood chips to fuel their wood boiler for plant heating. They recycle plastic, bottles, cans, aluminum, and cut-down defective parts into smaller pieces to minimize waste. I am told that all their wood is SFI certified, and FSC is available as an option. A recent development includes etching the order number into the window glass, making it easy to order replacement parts if damage occurs after installation.

The tour itself was pretty amazing. We walked around workers doing their regular jobs, machines running, wood stacked to the ceiling all around us. Workers basically ignored us, but were friendly and answered questions when asked. I suppose that they quickly get used to having tourists walking through every day. No one seemed overly enthusiastic nor unhappy. Not only was it not sanitized, it seemed on the verge of being dangerous. We were pretty close to some big machines that could cause some serious damage if someone got tangled in them. I could imagine other companies requiring visitors to sign long liability waivers beforehand, but we were pretty much allowed to wander around within view of our tour guide.

I was very impressed with the overall company culture and Marvin's devotion to the small community where the family has lived for over 100 years. Being family owned, Marvin does not have the same pressures of a publicly held company to manipulate earnings to boost their stock price. Consequently, they have not had any layoffs in the current downturn. In fact, we saw employees on scaffolding vacuuming the bar joists, something that hasn’t been done in over five years. The family is also very committed to Warroad. They have built a library, a pool, a hockey rink, and an impressive elderly living community that would be the envy of any city. Their corporate fleet of four turboprops runs daily flights to and from Minneapolis at a modest cost to anyone, with all the fees donated to community groups such as the fire department or library. College scholarships are available to local students based on their community involvement. After a 1961 fire that destroyed the Marvin factory, the company had appealing offers to relocate from Warroad, but they chose to rebuild in their hometown.

It occurred to me that this must be one seriously profitable company, considering all the money they spend on the community, the money they spend on bringing thousands of people up to tour their factory each year, and their reputation for a very high-quality product. I was expecting an elitist attitude, but found quite the opposite. Looking through the local phone book, I found the president’s home number and address listed

Too good to be true?
Being a natural-born cynic, I always look for the dark underbelly of an organization, but I wasn’t able to find one here. What’s a curmudgeon to do? Have no fear, I have at least a few minor complaints to make. The last part of our tour was to the round-top window area, where they have sophisticated computer-controlled routers that cut and shape various arches and ellipses, all out of large chunks of lumber. Talk about some serious waste! If I ever considered round-tops before, I would now recommend against them from a resource point of view. Another pet peeve of mine is the number of choices available. I have never been a big fan of unlimited selections, and that is just what Marvin has. If you want it, they will make it. A recent article in the New York Times discussed a study that determined that people buy less when they have too many options. Apparently, it hasn’t hurt Marvin, but it sure gives me a headache.

I would like to see Marvin move up to even higher-performance windows, similar to companies like Serious Energy. Because Marvin is a conservative organization, I can see where they might hesitate to jump into brand-new technologies until they are comfortable with their durability.

Finally, if we consider social justice as a part of green building (a favorite subject of Mr. Anschel’s), Marvin scores pretty high. The company’s investments in their town and in fair worker treatment are good for society as well as their business, aligning their bottom line with the community as a whole.



1.
Thu, 04/01/2010 - 19:22

I'm totally jealous!
by Arron

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First of all, it's quite the coincidence but I myself...am a mac daddy! Haha. But seriously what a cool company. Ever since I started working with window companies and content about them last year I was quickly and easily impressed by Marvin. The way the do business...how they seem to treat their customers...everything. So it's really cool to see this inside sort of glimpse of them. Knowing that they add to their surrounding community rather than just sucking up resources makes them all the better. Thanks Carl for a great article.


2.
Fri, 04/02/2010 - 16:38

Thanks Carl!
by Heather Elsberry

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Thank you so much for your time in visiting the Marvin Window plant with Architectural Visions, Inc. We really do appreciate your time and so glad that you were impressed with the product and company.

The great part about the Marvin round top department is that those large chunks of wood we saw are actually made from finger jointed or edge glued material from other parts of the factory, glued and compressed together then laminated and veneered in the round top department. I think they get somewhere in the 95-98% utilization of wood in the factory. Marvin truly does their best in putting all resources to use! Thanks again Carl.


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