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Purdue family creates jobs, getaways during pandemic

 "There’s an element of gambling to lumber,” said Mark Smith. “Lumber is a commodity market so it’s up and down all the time.”

Purdue alumni Mark and Jenny Smith faced the fluctuations for 31 years as suppliers of lumber and plywood, but never experienced shifts as abrupt as those in 2020. Within a span of months, the owners of Great Lakes Forest Products, Inc. saw their expanding business reduced to a bare-bones crew before unexpectedly needing to hire a record number of employees.

Building of Great Lake Forest Products Company

Mark was introduced to the industry as a teenager when he spent his summers framing houses. “I was enamored with wood products,” he recalled.

After a year studying wildlife management at Purdue, he switched to wood technology to pursue his passion. “That was probably the smartest decision I ever made, besides marrying my wife.”

Jenny Smith said she would agree. The two met in junior high and reconnected in college.  Jenny studied nursing and graduated from Purdue in 1981. In 1989, the couple decided to start their own business, Great Lakes Forest Products, which now supplies lumber for RVs and manufactured housing.

“Jenny and I have always worked well together,” said Mark.

Jenny and Mark, lake and trees on the background
Jenny and Mark Smith
Jenny found ways to put her nursing experience to use.  For 10 years, she served as the safety director of Great Lakes Forest Products.

“Mark is the absolute entrepreneur,” said Jenny. “He thinks outside the box and is always looking for opportunities and new markets. He’s not afraid to take a risk.”

Frequently, Mark bets on himself. “We are big on investing back into the company to create more infrastructure and capacity,” said Mark. “We now have six plants and are building another.”

The risks paid off for the Smiths as RV manufacturing tripled from 2009 to 2018. But when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation, their business was not immune.  The RV manufacturing industry, which represented 75 percent of their sales, shut down in March. Great Lakes Forest Products furloughed two-thirds of their 300 employees. Those remaining adapted by taking on new responsibilities.

“Since our managers and salespeople weren’t out seeing customers, they covered other tasks like running saws. It built a sense of camaraderie among our skeleton crew,” said Jenny. “And with my nursing background, I was able to take the lead with our COVID-19 precautions.”

After a lean March, the pandemic caused supply orders from box stores, which usually accounted for 25% of Great Lakes Forest Products’ sales, to triple.

“In May, the RV industry opened back up and we brought all the employees we had to furlough back,” said Jenny. “We expected a gradual climb in business, but it was like a rocket ship going to the moon. RV requests doubled and tripled as families looked for a safe way to travel amid the pandemic.”

Attempting to meet the demand, Great Lakes Forest Products began hiring as many qualified candidates as they could. When even that wasn’t enough, they added a full-time recruiter to their team.

“Our biggest challenge has been finding enough employees,” said Jenny. “It’s a good problem to have.” Especially since the Smiths consider their staff to be their most important asset.

“Jenny and I would both tell you the reason we have grown to this level is the people around us,” said Mark. “We are surrounded by great, smart people. And we are fortunate to have our family vested into this so one day the next generation is lined up to continue what we’ve started.”

people lining up out side ready to pick school supplies
Great Lakes Forest Products hosted a back-to-school giveaway to thank its employees’ families

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