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As a US maker of wooden toys for more than thirty years, Michael Rainville has seen the domestic manufacturing landscape change dramatically, as companies have shifted work overseas. During all that time, Michael's business Maple Landmark has remained committed to local sourcing and manufacturing, and has seen public opinion gradually shift back toward a preference for their way of doing business.
"The recalls of Chinese toys in 2007, due to lead paint and other problems, turned the tables slightly back toward our favor," says Michael. "We were no longer that crazy, quaint company in Vermont. We were now the company that was doing it 'right.' "
We asked Michael to tell us more about what Maple Landmark is doing right...
Green America: What does your business do and what are your most popular products?
Michael Rainville: Maple Landmark is a wooden toy manufacturer, the largest in the country. We are in Middlebury, Vermont, where we do all production. Our product line includes more than 1000 items, everything from rattles and building blocks to toy cars, trains, puzzles and games. We are most known for our NameTrains, wooden letters on wheels that connect to spell kids' names. We also do production work for other companies.
What makes Maple Landmark green?
Michael: Our primary grounding is good old Yankee ingenuity and frugality. This broadly intersects with being “green.” We scrutinize everything we buy and use, with an eye to the long term. Operating efficiently and sustainably is about minimizing waste, buying locally, and making durable products. I firmly believe doing things the right way takes you on greener path. Most of our lumber comes from mills less than ten miles away. We take in paper waste and shred it for packing material and we give our waste sawdust to a local farmer for cattle bedding. For our 34-year-old family business, this is business as usual.
What were you doing before you started your green business?
Michael: I started making wooden things in my parents' basement when I was in junior high and was selling wholesale before I turned 16. After college, my family (physically) helped build a larger shop that gave us a place to grow. Our family farm was called Maple Landmark Homestead so Maple Landmark Woodcraft was a logical extension. We have since moved to a local industrial park and have grown to 40 employees. This includes my wife, sister, and mother. My grandmother also helps out every day, my father some days, and my sons when they are off from college.
|Michael Rainville and family.|
What have been the biggest challenges to social and environmental responsibility?
Michael: Our biggest challenge has been maintaining ourselves as a domestic manufacturer. So many of our competitors moved production to Asia, something based on financial motives only. There is nothing green about making that decision, everything from the logging practices to employee treatment, and careless pollution – say nothing about 10,000 miles of transportation. Staying local was a decision that hurt our sales potential (due to higher costs), and it continues to do so. However we have found a business model that works for us and allows us to remain hands-on manufacturers.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Michael: My best advice is to teach yourself to be as interdisciplinary as possible, listen and learn from others. Starting out you don’t have the resources to hire out every task that may be beyond your core skill. In addition, understanding as much as possible gives you a more rounded knowledge of your business so you can make the best decisions on the fly, day in and day out. The prime example is people don’t understand business accounting so they rely on an accountant. However accountants are accountants and are not CEOs, thus you should not blindly, or exclusively, rely on them for your financial decisions.
My greatest caution is to not set yourself up overestimating growth potential and underestimating costs. There are hiccups along the way and you will not be able to predict them all. Protect against the downside. That is hard when you are an excited entrepreneur. We have people who come to us all the time to make product for them. They have an idea that all their friends and family have said is a great idea so they think they are going to sell large truckloads of them. Ideas are easy, gaining a position in the marketplace is the hard work.
What's the most hopeful sign you've seen recently from the green economy?
Michael: We have watched the explosion of interest in local food and that is beginning to extend to a broader consideration of the working landscape that includes wood products. People are realizing that trees are not only completely renewable but that also wood products are nothing but sequestered carbon.
The world has changed a lot since I started over 34 years ago, however I have been able to continuously satisfy my “manufacturing itch,” which got me started. I didn’t set out to make toys necessarily but generally we’ve been on that track, finding products that people want to buy so we can make more.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Michael: As we continue to grow, we probably have an expansion in our future. In the meantime we are trying to squeeze everything out of our current facility because there is nothing green about expanding building volume before it is absolutely necessary. I am gathering ideas so when we do expand we’ll do it as smartly as possible.
What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?
Michael: I’m not much of a consumer, to me the greenest product is the one that was never purchased. Too many people tend to confuse their wants and their needs.