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Knocking on wood: Local lumber business builds solid reputation

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Ken Marson, president of family-owned Marson and Marson, is optimistic about an upswing in building in North Central Washington, but it’s been a tough few years for his company.

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It’s no secret the recession was tough on the building industry.

In a normal year, there are about 1.3 million housing starts nationwide. In 2006, housing starts peaked at 2.2 million. Three years later they hit rock bottom at 550,000. The building industry saw construction companies across the nation slash jobs to survive.

In some cases, they went out of business.

For Marson and Marson Lumber Inc., based in Leavenworth, it has been a rough few years.

At our peak from 2005 through 2007, we had over 100 employees,” said Ken Marson, president of the family-owned lumber supply and hardware business since 1997. “The building industry in the Pacific Northwest took a huge dive in 2008. Nobody in the country realized how much the construction industry would plunge. That’s what really hurt everybody — how much it plunged. Over the four years since, it’s been a real business challenge. We downsized to 60 employees to stay viable.”

But the economy appears to be on the mend, and that’s a breath of fresh air for the building industry.

We’re doing more business now than we have been doing in the last four years,” Marson said. “The building industry is forecasting housing starts for 2013 to be 950,000 to 1 million. That’s nowhere near where we were at the peak, but it’s promising and realistic. We’re now seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel.”

Marson and Marson Lumber (marsonandmarson.com) is a well-stocked lumber and hardware store with a welcoming small-town feel. It features everything from anchor bolts to zip ties, plus an in-house estimator to help develop material lists. They have had a design center across the highway for 25 years, where the design staff sells cabinets, carpeting, hardwood flooring and ceramic tile.

The business also has its own roof truss plant with in-house designers. Marsons builds trusses based on blueprint specifications, including engineering and snow loads. Upon completion, the set of roof trusses is stamped by an engineer, as required by the building departments. The plant is capable of building roof trusses up to 80 feet long, but the most common lengths are 24 to 44 feet.

Three local buildings highlight Marson and Marson’s materials. The company provided the materials for the Cashmere Riverside Center, the new Snowy Owl Theater at Leavenworth’s Icicle Creek Center for the Arts and the new Post Hotel complex in Leavenworth owned by the Johnson family, founders of Leavenworth’s Enzian Inn.

In 1997, Marson and Marson expanded to Wenatchee and opened a drywall and lumber supply outlet. In 2003, it opened a store in Chelan. And in 2005, Marson and Marson expanded to Cle Elum.

That’s pretty impressive for a business with such a simple beginning.

Marson’s grandparents, Kenneth and Marie Marson, moved to Leavenworth from Bothell in the late 1940s. They purchased property in Sunitsch Canyon up the Chumstick with the intent to farm. Fences and outbuildings needed to be built, so Kenneth and his son, Gordon, drove their old farm truck to a sawmill in Everett, and brought back lumber for the projects. As the farm took shape, the neighbors noticed and were impressed with the quality of the lumber. So much so, they asked the Marsons to haul loads of lumber from Everett for themselves.

One load led to another, then another and another. It didn’t take long for the Marsons to realize they could make a better living selling lumber than they could farming. So, in 1955, Ken’s grandparents and parents purchased property in east Leavenworth for their new venture in the lumber business.

My grandparents and parents got started in the lumber industry by accident,” Marson said. “They bought the property the business is still on, and built a simple 12-foot by 16-foot store. They filled it with lumber, and started the business on a prayer.”

It was a family venture from the start. Grandfather Ken partnered with his son, Gordon, and named the business Marson and Marson Lumber. Gordon’s wife, Marydell, did the books.

They were at the right place at the right time.

In the mid-1950s, Leavenworth was a small timber community with a struggling economy. When Marson and Marson Lumber opened for business, the family had no idea that in seven short years the small but growing lumber business would be perfectly poised. In 1962, the town of Leavenworth began its renaissance toward the successful Bavarian Village it is today.

Grandson Ken Marson was raised in the family business. He graduated from Leavenworth High School, Wenatchee Valley College and went on to Central Washington University. He majored in business administration with an emphasis in management and marketing, and graduated in 1976.

Marson returned to Leavenworth for two reasons — he wanted to continue working in the family business and he loved the area.

My dad gave me a lot of responsibility in a hurry,” Marson said. “I got my feet wet in the lumber industry at a fairly early age.”

The Marsons decided to bring hardware into the business mix; in 1977, they built the store as it stands today.

Over the following 15 years, Marson became involved in lumber industry politics. He served on the Governmental Affairs Committee while a member of the National Lumber Dealers Association.

In the late 1980s, the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest was severely impacted by the spotted owl controversy. Federal timber sales in old growth timber screeched to a halt. Thousands of jobs were lost in the lumber industry, and the negative economic impact drew attention at the highest level of government.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore boarded Air Force One and flew to Portland to confer with lumber industry leaders at the Presidential Timber Summit. One of the leaders invited to the summit was Ken Marson.

I was a representative of the lumber industry, and the only retail lumber yard at the summit,” Marson said. “The problems caused by the spotted owl controversy had been brewing for years. President Clinton and Vice President Gore came to the Pacific Northwest because they wanted to hear from industry representatives face to face about the impacts of the spotted owl on the federal timber laws. Although it was a great experience for me personally, I honestly don’t think the summit resulted in anything positive for the timber industry.”

When not meeting with the leaders of the free world, Marson is meeting with and supporting the needs of local contractors and builders like Mike Lowers, co-owner of Timberwood Construction in Cashmere. Lowers has been doing business with Marson and Marson Lumber for the entire 28 years he has been in business.

We have customers with high expectations for our workmanship and products,” Lowers said. “Marson’s key employees have the knowledge and professionalism to give us the confidence that our best interests will continually be addressed. We can count on Marsons to take care of us when special situations come up that need extra attention.”

While taking good care of its customers is important to Marson and Marson Lumber, equally important is taking good care of its community. Upper Valley MEND’s (Meeting Each Need with Dignity) Cornerstone Community, a Leavenworth adult family home housing six developmentally disabled residents, is one example of how the company has stepped up for its neighbors.

Cornerstone Community would likely not exist today without the support of the Marson family,” said Chuck Reppas, executive director of Upper Valley MEND. “The Marsons have also supported affordable housing in Leavenworth over the years with the Alpine Heights and Aldea Village neighborhoods, as well as our new Meadowlark development and its 30 affordable homes. The Marsons are committed to improving our community, and we are grateful for their support.”

His parents taught him that being a good community steward is a responsibility of a business, Marson said.

Your customers are your friends and neighbors, and if they aren’t supporting you, you won’t stay in business,” he explained. “It’s a lot of fun to give back to the community because you can see how it impacts people. We support each community we are in. Anything you can do to improve the quality of life of the area you are in is beneficial to yourselves and everyone.”

Ken Marson is cautiously optimistic about the future of his family business and the construction industry in general.

This year, housing construction is starting to improve in all regions of the country,” Marson said. “All indicators point to lumber demand remaining strong over the next year or two. If it doesn’t go crazy and get out of hand again, I think things look pretty good. We think our core area — North Central Washington, the Kittitas Valley and the Columbia Basin — is looking good.”

And as the last Marson in the family business, is Ken eyeing retirement yet?

I’m still in my fifties and I hope to be around for quite some time yet,” he said. “We fully intend to continue to keep the business active and growing to provide the building needs of Central Washington.”

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