Marling Lumber Changes with the Times

More than 100 years old, Marling continues to look for growth opportunities
Christina Lewellen
October 1, 2009
SPECIAL FEATURES | Operations, Channels, Close-Ups

Overall Excellance


Marling Lumber Co.

Janesville, Wis.

Business cycles don’t make the Marling Lumber leadership nervous. Now run by the fourth and fifth generation of the Marling family, the company has survived recessions and booms, expansions and even devastating fires. So while most of its competitors are struggling to keep the doors open, Marling Lumber continues to serve its professional customers by opening new doors—several new doors in fact.

Marling Lumber employees are excited about what the future holds for their 100+ year old company. A fresh new retail concept allows its professional customers 24-hour access to the products the company offers.

The company is taking advantage of the current economic downturn by expanding its 24-hour showroom concept, known as HomeWorks. The timing makes sense to the Marling executives, as they’re focusing less on the recession and more on what is sure to follow. “Being in business for 100 years, we know this is cyclical,” says David Marling, a fifth generation of the company’s leadership. “We know it’s coming back. The managers and the family have been very conservative throughout the years. We had some cash we were sitting on and we were ready to invest in the future.”  

And invest they did. The company spent $2 million this year to remodel its HomeWorks showrooms in Madison and Green Bay, Wis., and opened new sites in Janesville and Waukesha, Wis. The retail concept showcases the many building products Marling offers, including what the company has dubbed its “city streets” display. The 17,000 square foot showroom features a replica of a city street, complete with a paved street and a sky painted on the ceiling. Eight different house facades showcase windows, doors, exterior trim and other lumberyard products. “A lot of people have commented that it looks a lot like the Bellagio in Las Vegas,” Marling notes.  

There were many steps and growth stages from the company’s humble beginnings in the early 1900s to its current position as a leader serving Wisconsin and Illinois contractors and builders, and while Marling is quick to point out that there’s always room for a company to improve, he says he’s never been more excited about the company’s future. “I’ve never felt more confident about the company’s future success than I do right now,” he says. “We’ve grown in a lot of ways and different product areas. We’re in a position to serve our customers better than ever before.”  

Being in business for more than 100 years gives the Marling family quite a learning curve. Walter Marling started the company in 1904 as a logical extension of the saw mill he owned. For many years, the company functioned as a lumberyard, offering coal for fuel and building supplies. In time, he began Marling Building Components, a company that focused on exterior doors and wall panels. At first a prehanger, the company eventually took the leap and began its venture as a full-fledged door company. “We got the pieces here and there and assembled them ourselves,” Marling recalls.
In 1968, the family started another segment of the business, Marling Distributors. Not only did this arm wholesale the company’s doors to other lumberyards, but it also grew to be among the largest Merrilat cabinet distributors in the state. The distribution company now offers skylights, trim, disappearing stairs and other products.  

Now run by the fourth and fifth generation of the Marling family, what started as a traditional lumber yard has grown to include door production, distribution and retail centers.

While the lumberyard no longer carries coal, it does continue to focus on contractor sales, offering among other products a variety of window lines from Andersen, Kolbe & Kolbe, Milgard and Lincoln/Timeline. “Marling Lumber in Janesville is an old fashioned lumberyard,” Marling says. “The building is 100 years old. Back when the company first started, it was a prime location. But as we’ve grown as a town, we’re now landlocked and we’ve been limited on space for a showroom.” So with the next phase of its development in mind, the Marling family started exploring its options to expand its retail presence. “We were really trying to get past just being a contractor yard,” Marling explains. “We were continuing to grow and we felt this was an area that the industry was going toward—displays. People like to touch, feel products before they buy.”  

Marling's leadership believes that the best way to serve its professional builders and contractors is to give them an easy way to serve their homeowners, with a touch-before-you-buy showroom.

This is where the concept of the HomeWorks showroom began, Marling says. With its builder and professional contractor customers in mind, the Marlings envisioned a welcoming, expansive space where professionals could bring their clients to explore product options and potential upgrades. The locations have more than 60 doors on display and 16 windows, all trimmed out in different wood species and with different profiles. The sites also have a fully-functioning gourmet kitchen for demonstrations and guest events, a full outdoor patio set-up, and extensive displays of cabinets, bath products and flooring. “We wanted to develop a 24-hour showroom,” Marling says. “Certain contractors will have a pass code to get into the selection center so they can get in anytime with their customers to use it. This is a very in-depth way of showing different products and how they’re used.”  

For Marling’s leadership, having a cutting-edge retail space for its professional customers was not good enough to position the company for the future. They also wanted to be a valuable resource for its professionals, keeping up on industry and product trends so builders and contractors could spend more time serving their homeowners. To this end, some Marling employees have become aging-in-place specialists, setting the company apart from big box retailers. “There’s nobody even close to this area that we know of that has gotten involved in this area of the industry,” Marling says. “We have one section of our showroom dedicated to this—it has a working elevator, walk-in tubs, chair lifts, a whole kitchen dedicated to being wheelchair accessible. We also go to homes and do consulting for things like wider doorways and wheelchair showers.”  

The team didn’t miss a beat when the stimulus package announced building products incentives. “We have several people staying on top of it,” he says of the government offerings, which have been somewhat confusing with shifting qualifying requirements and documentation details. “We jumped on it. We created seminars for builders and their homeowners. We made a packet that includes all of the products we offer that qualify [for tax incentives]. We have also created our own incentive programs to increase the amounts of the rebates and include financing.”  

Marling says the stimulus seminars have worked well for contractors because it helps them stay on top of the situation and sound a lot more educated with customers. “The more tools we can provide our customers, the better off they’ll be in the field, which translates to better sales for everyone,” he says.  

Marling officials also keep tabs on green building trends, and made a point to include a heightened energy efficient wall structure in its showroom. “We’re also working on putting some solar panels into the City Streets display, trying to offset the operational costs of the building.”  

For many years, the separate branches of the Marling company—the lumberyard, the distribution arm and the retail space—functioned, for all intents and purposes, as separate companies. Different family members ran the various components and didn’t bother to integrate the businesses. But in today’s environment, the executives realized that the left hand knowing what the right hand was doing would allow Marling Lumber additional competitive advantages. “Those three companies may have been heading in three different directions, but now we’re all one company. We’re tying in our phones and computer systems and we’re really striving to be one corporation rather than the separate way of 15 years ago,” Marling says.  

The company’s willingness to change through the years to meet its customers’ needs and adjust its business model to remain competitive has positioned it to be a leader as economic recovery sets in, Marling says. “I’ve the most excited I’ve ever been,” he says. “We’re ready for a lot of change and growth. Some people may not understand why we’re doing all this [in a recession], but we’re confident that this is making us ready.”  

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