At 50 Universal Eyes Future

July 15, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Universal Forest Products celebrates a half century in business at an open house Wednesday, and while the company is grateful for its past success, it's firmly focused on the future.

What will the next 50 years bring? More of the same growth and achievement, management hopes.

During the past 50 years Universal has grown to become the leading supplier of wood and wood-alternative products in the United States, serving the retail do-it-yourself, site-built construction, industrial packaging and components, and manufactured housing markets.

It's a big player in the global lumber market, as well.

Today, Universal is the largest U.S. manufacturer of roof trusses, the world's largest manufacturer of treated wood and the largest customer of all the major lumber mills in the United States. The company presently generates some $2.5 billion in sales, operates 96 facilities in North America and employs nearly 9,000.

Universal, then and now, takes a very fiscally conservative approach to business, said CEO and Vice Chairman William Currie.

"There's not a lot of flash in Universal's business strategy. It's pretty much in concrete."

William F. Grant founded Universal Forest Products in February 1955. He was the major shareholder and the company's sole salesman. Peter F. Secchia joined the company seven years later fresh out of Michigan State University. Grant initially hired him to oversee a lumber mill in British Columbia that the company had just acquired.

Currie graduated from Hope College with a business administration degree and joined Universal as a salesman in 1971. He had met Secchia while managing a restaurant in Holland, and they became friends.

"He invited me to join the business that he was about to take control of, and I came on as the first employee," Currie said. It was not only an offer of a job, it was an opportunity to buy into the company, as well. The company had four people at the time and was generating $12 million in annual sales.

In the early years Currie put 100,000 miles a year on his car selling Universal products from Maine to South Carolina. As a young lumber company, Universal had a unique sales approach for the times.

Universal salesmen would show customers how to take costs out of their home-building projects by changing lumber dimensions, lumber species or lumber length, Currie said.

"That was a pretty new approach; it was the approach that Mr. Grant and Peter taught me and I learned pretty quickly about cuts and yields and saving money for customers.

"I'd do their inventories, write up their orders, direct them to the right products so they could save money, and I would guarantee them if they purchased all their stuff from me they would always be buying it at less cost than they would pay anybody else. I became very good friends with my major customers, and those relationships last through today."

In 1979 Currie sold the first Home Depot store its first load of treated lumber. He nurtured that relationship over the years and Home Depot subsequently became Universal's biggest and best customer.

"What we're trying to do is balance our business," Currie said. "That's kind of what makes us different from most any other lumber company out there. We take all four markets and try to grow all of them, so that if the home building business tanks, we still have a powerful company. When the manufactured housing business tanked five years ago, you didn't even notice it in our numbers. We just put pressure on the other markets to grow those businesses."

The balanced business model, the conservative approach to business and the demand for growth are the things that distinguish Universal, he said.

In 1989, the first President George Bush appointed Secchia U.S. ambassador to Italy and Currie succeeded him as CEO. Currie is only the third person in Universal's history to bear the title.

When Secchia returned from his stint as ambassador in 1993, the company was growing like crazy and outgrowing its ability to raise capital, Currie recalled. Secchia owned 70 percent of the company then, and he took the company public that year, issuing 5.7 million shares and raising $20 million in additional equity.

"We decided that me and my management team would continue to run the business and Peter would come back as chairman, move off the premises and handle community relations, charities and the conversion to a public company," Currie said. "That's the way it has been for a long time."

In 1997 Universal entered the site-built construction market and ushered in a new era of growth.

"I didn't know much about acquisitions, but then became quite good at it," Currie said. "That was something new and exciting — not to be only doing your business all day long, but expanding your opportunities to grow the business by acquiring good companies with good people that would fit in with our culture."

Secchia said he is proud of the culture Universal has built. He describes Universal as a company at which people can build a career and where management shares the fruits of success with "the people who made it happen."

"I was not successful on my own — I was successful because of the Bill Curries, the Mike Glenns, the Jim Wards, and because of the great folks on the production lines who put their shoulders to the grindstone to crank out our success, piece by piece, year by year," Secchia has said. "I'm proud of this company and its culture. I'm proud of my role in building this organization and finding great people to keep it going."

Like Currie and President and COO Michael B. Glenn, all Universal's top managers have worked up through the ranks. Anybody who aspires to be on the executive team has to make the same climb today.

Commenting on Currie's leadership style, Glenn said Currie seldom tells people on his team what to do.

"He shows you. He leads by example," Glenn said. "If something comes up and you seek Bill's advice, he'll give you options — he'll give you sides and arguments, but not the answer. He'll leave the decision up to you."

Glenn said Universal is unique in large part because many of its senior people have been with the company so long — for 25, 30, even 35 years. Glenn has been with the firm 31 years, and among senior management the average is 19.7 years.

"After all that time working together and growing a company, collaboration and cooperation are second nature. You have a vision and you come together and will yourselves to make it work. It's as productive and energizing an environment as I can imagine."

He envisions the company delving deeper and more broadly into all four of the markets it serves, growing by moving from decking to complete outdoor atmosphere components, from floors to floor systems, etc.

"That's what's going to continue to separate us from our competition," Glenn said.

Currie attributes Universal's success not to any one individual, but to the collective team.

"Forget Peter and I and Bill Grant. The management team of this company is the best there is," he said. "We can keep growing because we have the capacity and the people to keep growing. You take a look at the people, the management group, the attention to detail on the training and the future, and combine that with the business model that we run our business by — that's Universal Forest Products." 

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