Case Studies

Universal Forest Products Inc.

Growing for More Than a Half Century
  • Written by: Universal Forest Products Inc.
  • Produced by: Universal Forest Products Inc.
  • Estimated reading time: 5 mins

Just as a small acorn can grow into a mighty oak, Universal Forest Products Inc. (Universal) grew from a manufactured housing business wholesaler into the nation’s leading manufacturer and distributor of wood and wood-alternative products.

Started in 1955, Universal now dominates the lumber industry from its corporate headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich. The company is not only one of the largest manufacturers of pressure-treated wood, but it is an industry leader across the board in home improvement, manufactured housing and RV wood, as well as innovative truss systems in the retail building, industrial packaging/components, residential, commercial and concrete forming markets.

The company boasts 5,000 employees and more than 70 facilities (including ones in Mexico and Canada), allowing service to all 50 states, dozens of brand name products, and annual revenue of nearly $2 billion – the natural result of planned growth. “We have the best people in the business; we’re very knowledgeable, we’re aggressive, we do what we say, we have a good reputation in the business, and we’re a very financially healthy corporation.” explains Mike Mordell, executive vice president of Universal Purchasing Inc.

The Forest and the Trees

Mordell, who has been with the company for 20 years, earned both his Michigan State University bachelor’s degree and Texas A&M Master’s degree in Forestry Management. “I always wanted to be in the lumber industry, and I’m living my dream,” he enthuses. “I’ve got sawdust in my veins. My mom’s side of the family were loggers. It’s been a great career and there’s nothing I’d rather do than this business.”

Universal imports lumber from all over the globe: Europe, South America, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, China. Then, on the sales side, the company sells back into those markets. “We’re considered a secondary manufacturer in lumber,” Mordell explains. “This means, as a general rule, that we buy material from sawmills – two by fours to two by twelves – all grades from clears down to the lowest grades, which we process into literally thousands of different products.”

To say Universal is a large customer for most of the major sawmills out there would be an understatement. Universal engages in a multitude of different production aspects and touches many facets of the supply chain by producing everything from siding, trim and molding, to shipping pallets, to agricultural stakes, to animal bedding, to firelogs to wood fuel pellets – and thousands of things in between. Some Universal brands include: ProWood treated lumber, Latitudes decking and railing, Veranda decking and railing and plastic lattice, Outdoor Essentials, Maine Ornamental, Open Joist, Pneuscrew, Uncle Ethans, DeckoRail, Deckorators, Accoya, Abaco and Deck Wrecker.

Planting for the Future

Mordell is clearly passionate about forestry and the lumber industry, and this passion goes beyond his day-to-day operations. He pursues his interest even further by helping lead the North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA) as Chairman of the Board of Directors for 2012 – 2013. He’s served on the board for the past 10 years, and Universal has been a NAWLA member for the past 44 years. “I’m just trying to give back,” explains Mordell. “I’m a busy guy and it’s not easy to do it, but it’s important. We’re generally an altruistic group in this industry.”

NAWLA, founded in 1893, is one of the oldest professional organizations in the country. In short, NAWLA is a hothouse of industry networking, information sharing, strategizing and brainstorming that helps keep the industry on point. It provides a great sense of community and strives to be inclusive and connective. Mordell encourages members to make the most of their NAWLA memberships, declaring, “Get on a committee! Meet people! Make friends! There are a lot of very smart people to meet out there.”

Always planning for growth, Mordell’s prime inititative as Chairman was to create a strong leadership team to make sure NAWLA is healthy five to 10 years from now. “It’s tough to maintain a long-term vision when you only have a year, but I wanted to make sure that when I stepped out, we wouldn’t miss a beat,” he says, undaunted.

Universal values NAWLA’s contributions to keeping the industry healthy and has been a consistent supporter for the past decade. NAWLA’s annual Traders Market, an industry-wide exhibitors convention, is the largest single event in which Mordell’s lumber purchasing department participates. The Traders Market features hundreds of vendors promoting lumber products from around the world. It operates under NAWLA’s mission umbrella of information sharing, product development and bringing like-minded quality people together to interact and exchange ideas.


Mordell speaks knowledgeably on every topic of forestry: healthy forests, forest fires, sawmills, and uneducated protestors. He has enough fascinating material for any number of pages and it’s easy to see why he and Universal are a great fit. He’s very aware that the lumber industry gets a bad rap, but he believes it’s a correctible situation. “It’s a good industry with a good story to tell, but we didn’t always do a good job telling the story,” admits Mordell.

“Everybody means well, but often they don’t get it, they don’t understand the complexity of a forest,” adds Mordell. There are some concepts, such as the fact that a forest needs to be cleaned out occasionally by fire, that are more difficult to grasp. But that’s because there is a fine balance to maintain; keep fires out too long and allow too much fuel to accumulate and you get a disaster like Yellowstone.

Mordell frets a little over the NIMBYs, or the Not In My Back Yard activists who advocate for preservation initiatives without actually understanding forestry. “As capacity and available timber lands have shrunk in North America, log supply often gets pushed somewhere else, sometimes to countries where harvesting laws may not yet be as developed as ours,” he reflects. “These environments sometimes pay a steep price as a result. While probably well intentioned, NIMBYs do not always realize the downstream effects of saving their own backyards from any change.”

Running Rings Around the Competition

No matter the challenges, Mordell sees a simple solution at the core. “We focus heavily on maintaining relationships, as well as creating new ones,” he emphasizes. “We attack both sides of that. We’ve had a lot of changes in our business with the … I’m going to use the word depression, because it wasn’t a recession, it was a depression for the lumber industry. Relationships have been more important than ever to get people through. It’s still a people-driven business. You may have the best technology in the world, but it’s still people driving it.”

Depression or recession, Universal’s future looks healthy. The company is optimistic about its future. Either way, Universal has never lost money – ever – in any year, thanks to conservative business practices, strategic diversification and a staff that is nurtured from within. “I’m excited about our industrial initiative, our diverse product mix, and increasing our leadership role in our industry,” shares Mordell about future plans.

Not growing Universal would make about as much sense as trying to stop a tree from adding another ring. The company’s industrial business, for example, continues to grow organically and through acquisition. Subsidiaries purchased Nepa Pallet and Container Company in November, and Customer Caseworks in December. “We’re focused for growth,” says Mordell determinedly. “We’re committed to it, and we’re absolutely sure we will.”

Indeed, Universal Forest Products Inc. represents over half a century of growth that’s in no danger of being cut down.

Published on: April 2, 2013

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