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Marvin touts business for purpose, not profit

Chair of Marvin Windows and Doors encourages community, family values in industry at 31st Hultberg salute to women leaders

Susan Marvin
Susan Marvin, Chair of Marvin Doors and Windows, has been a part of her family company’s third-generation management team for more than 35 years. The company has now entered its fourth generation – one of the few in the country to do so. Marvin delivered a powerful Hultberg Lectureship Series keynote address April 17 in the Gorecki Alumni Center. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Susan Marvin, former president and current chair of Marvin Windows and Doors, is accustomed to presenting to venues filled with builders, contractors and architects. On April 17, her audience shifted to a couple hundred budding entrepreneurs, marketers and accountants.

“My manufacturing background and industry expertise probably isn’t relevant to you,” she admitted to the students packing the Gorecki Alumni Center. “But I think my topic is. Because I’m here to talk about the reason we do what we do – the meaning in what we do. We truly believe at Marvin Windows and Doors that we have a higher purpose.”

Marvin was invited to UND to deliver the keynote address of the 31st Hultberg Lectureship Series, hosted annually by the College of Business & Public Administration (CoBPA) as a platform to engage and celebrate women in business.

The executive powerhouse worked her way from the factory floor of her Warroad, Minnesota-based family business to an integral role in the third-generation management team, now leading the fourth generation down a successful, morality-driven path.

“Susan talks about the tough times that Marvin Company has gone through, but how the family worked together through those with a key focus on the community and the employees,” said UND President Mark Kennedy. “This lecture series is about the purpose, principles and values that we have – so this was a fabulous person to bring to the University of North Dakota.”


More than 100 years ago, Marvin’s grandfather stepped off a train in Warroad, started up a lumber yard and a grain elevator, and put down roots in the community. When the Great Depression hit, he didn’t lay off a single employee, extended credit to his customers and accepted bartered items for payment.

“He stayed true to his values,” Marvin said. “The foundation was then laid for our purpose, and that’s still in place – to provide meaningful employment, contribute to the vitality of the community, and to improve fenestration (arrangement of windows and doors) by serving customers.”

Susan Marvin’s father continued the family legacy by diversifying to windows to provide jobs for those returning from World War II. Today, Marvin employs more than 5,500 people in 12 plants across seven states.

But as large as the company grows, Warroad – a tiny town of 1,800 – will always be its home.

“The location had a lot to do with shaping our business,” Marvin said. “When I think about the difference the location made, I think about the people – it’s a really caring culture. The bond between the employees and the owners and the community is distinctive, and it breeds respect and integrity.”

Susan Marvin takes a moment for a photo with some Hultberg Lecture attendees. Marvin told students to ask themselves "not just what you want to do, but why," and that Americans are hungry for community-strengthening companies. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.
Susan Marvin takes a moment for a photo with some Hultberg Lecture attendees. Marvin told students to ask themselves “not just what you want to do, but why,” and that Americans are hungry for community-strengthening companies. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Strength through struggle

In 1961, the Marvin family plant burned to the ground. When the smoke cleared, 172 people were out of work.

Susan’s father started getting calls from other cities, offering him buildings to restart and bring those jobs into their towns.

“But my father, and his father and brothers, got together and said, ‘We can’t. This company was built by our friends and our neighbors and classmates. If we leave, we’d be leaving them high and dry,’” Marvin recounted.

The family found the money to rebuild, and the Marvins demanded that the construction company hire those who lost their jobs to the fire. Eighteen months later, Marvin Company was once again prospering.

Flash forward to 2009. The economy had just crashed and no one was building homes – thus, no one needed doors and windows.

“It was the deepest recession in our industry ever,” Marvin said. “Thirty percent of our industry was unemployed overnight, but it was clear that we would not lay off anyone.”

It wasn’t easy. Salaries were reduced company-wide and some benefits and bonuses were cut – but Marvin was focused the health of its community, and the family company survived the struggle.

“Many Americans are hungry for long-term strengthening of our communities and improving lives. We’re not unique. Honor is not dead in business,” Marvin said. “There’s real, marketable worth in timeless values.”

Marvin left students with a modest request, to look into their own futures and assess what will always be most important, beyond a paycheck.

“I encourage you to ask yourself not just what you want to do, but why,” she emphasized. “It isn’t what you do that matters most – it’s the non-financial reason you show up for work every day.”

Hultberg heroines

Marvin’s inspiring keynote was just one element of Tuesday’s Hultberg Lectureship Series agenda.

Earlier in the day, four UND alumnae who have become community leaders – Cassandra McKinney Torstenson, Brainerd City Administrator; Karen Thingelstad, Minnkota Power Cooperative Vice President and CFO; Sarah Newgard, owner of The Pedal cycling studio; and Kristi Hall-Jiran, CVIC President and CEO – visited classrooms and participated in panels to share their experiences.

The Hultberg Lectureship Series was established through the UND Foundation with a leading gift from 1928 UND graduate Clara E. Hultberg. Since its inception three decades ago, the program has invited more than 100 prominent female CoBPA graduates to provide words of advice and support.

“This demonstrates to students that the foundation they are getting here at CoBPA or other colleges on campus is preparing them well for meaningful lives and meaningful careers,” said CoBPA Associate Dean for Administration Patrick O’Neill. “It’s much more powerful for alums to come back and share that message than a faculty member saying it.”

Sophomore accounting student Allison Mulroy attended a luncheon with the Hultberg lady leaders, and said the themes of that conversation perfectly paralleled those of Marvin’s presentation – proving you don’t need to be a homebuilder to have a clear glass window to achievement.

“Every speaker talked about having passion for what they did, and how they would encounter struggles in their work lives. But they always persevered,” Mulroy said. “That gives students hope for our futures, and a glimpse of what we can expect.”