A Window on the Economy

September 30, 2011

Most of the bad news about the continued economic slump has focused on the real villains of the story: the financial institutions and government regulators who brought ruin on the American Dream. An interesting story in the New York Times last week caught my attention, because it underlined the tireless efforts of a family-owned company to weather the storm without shortchanging its employees. Moreover, the company in question was a well-known manufacturer of windows, one of the key components of residential and commercial construction. Just how difficult has it been for such enterprises during the past four years? If the Marvin Window story is any indication, America should sound the alarm or face the collapse of some its most important manufacturers.

Marvin Windows has been at the top of the premium residential market for decades, mostly due to the things that make any successful company work: quality products, good marketing, outstanding service, and sound management. Unlike the many building materials companies that fell prey to LBO scams in the 1990s, Marvin retained its family ownership–indeed, descendants of the founder are still in charge after more than a century. According to Susan Marvin, the current president, that is not about to change anytime soon.

The company has not turned a profit in three years, but won’t bend on its core values. “Unlike so many other companies, Marvin Windows has neither laid off workers nor reduced health insurance benefits. And, its executives vow, it won’t,” writes Andrew Martin from company headquarters in Warroad, Minnesota. Recognizing that its very existence as a leader in the market is threatened, this manufacturer will not downsize to reflect low demand during a lull in building. If the factory loses its core of experienced craftspersons, the company will not be able to compete once demand picks up. There is no question that Marvin fills a critical place in the U.S. building industry now, and that any reduction in its capacity will not only hurt the bottom line but also the industry as a whole. The leadership at this small company doesn’t buy Wall Street’s skewed vision for American business, and thank God for that.

If the Marvin family’s care and concern for its labor force sounds like something out of a Frank Capra movie, it may be time for American business to wake up from its cynical pipe dream and go back to work. Bravo for those ice-fishing, hockey-playing woodworkers in frigid Minnesota. Perhaps they’ll show us how good old fashioned sweat and elbow grease can lift us out of our doldrums and start building a sustainable nation for the next century and beyond.