Carving a Niche

Mike and Jill Rainville make wooden toys using new-fangled equipment and old-fashioned family involvement.

by Tom Gresham

Mike Rainville, owner with his wife, Jill, of Maple Landmark Woodcraft in Middlebury, has been carving wooden toys since he was 8. He is pictured here with his sister, Barbara Rainville, marketing manager of the award-winning family-operated toy company he founded in 1984.

A quick tour through the MapleLandmark Woodcraft factory in Middlebury is a bit like leafing through owner Mike Rainville's photo album there's a good chance of encountering the smiling faces of at least a few of his family members. One might find his grandmother, Harriet Brown, stamping the company logo on a box of toys; or Rainville's mother, Pat, carefully painting a pillbox. There might be his sister, Barbara, preparing for a trade show; or his wife, Jill, poring over the books; or his sons, Adam and Andrew, goofing off.

"The aspect of family is important here," Rainville says. "It's always been important. My family's been helping me for years. Our family is used to working together, either on the farm or at the general store that my parents ran. That's just the way we've always done things."

One of the country's premier manufacturers of wooden toys, Maple Landmark boasts a product line of more than 1,000 items. Sales stretch nationwide and into Canada, Japan and Hong Kong. More than 3,000 locations stock Maple Landmark products. Thirty employees make it all happen at the company's plant on Exchange Street.

Rainville traces the birth of Maple Landmark to the early 1970s when he was only 8 or 9 years old. It's not surprising that Rainville's family provided the spark that lit his fire.

"My grandfathers did a lot of carpentry and so I was never far from saws and sawdust and wood," Rainville says. "I started playing with stuff. I actually started hand-sawing things myself. I would try to copy things like cribbage boards and jewelry boxes."

Rainville's parents owned and ran a general store in Lincoln, where he grew up and still lives, from 1975 to 1989. As is the case at Maple Landmark today, the store was teeming with Rainvilles. From the beginning, he was able to sell some of his work from the store's shelves. He also managed sales at local flea markets.

In 1979, Rainville, who was 16 at the time and working out of his parents' basement, secured his first wholesale order. His products in those days included game boards (tic-tac-toe, cribbage), so-called "knickknacks" and a few toys (miniature cars and trucks).

When Rainville graduated from Clarkson University in 1984, he launched his woodworking business in earnest, working out of his own shop on Brown's Road in Lincoln. He chose the name of Maple Landmark Woodcraft in honor of the Maple Landmark Homestead, which was the family farm and sugaring operation. The products varied considerably. Rainville declined to narrow his focus in the early stages, instead allowing the marketplace to dictate what he built. Toys did not represent a major portion of his early work.

"It was more gift stuff," Rainville says, "knickknack-type things. You know, things like thread-holders. I definitely would not have seen us as a toy operation one day in the future. I thought we'd do more gift business."

Eventually, however, the market steered him in the direction of toys. It seems surprising that a business that manufactures wooden toys would have grown by leaps and bounds in the past 20 years a time when flashy, highly technical toys have asserted their dominance in the aisles of large-scale toy store franchises. However, Rainville says, the possibilities became apparent after Maple Landmark launched its first line of NameTrains, toy trains that fit wooden tracks, in 1988.

"We had some success with the trains and we got some attention," Rainville says. "We were attracted to the toy market after that. It was simple to fall into at the time. It came pretty easily. In fact, it pretty much drove us on its own."

Rainville admits he's surprised he became a toy maker. He says it proves one has to be willing, flexible and open-minded to succeed in the world of commerce.

He remembers attending a meeting with his college adviser duing his senior year at Clarkson. Rainville brought along some of his wooden creations to the session. He was still trying to figure exactly how he was going to turn his talents into a business.

"My adviser told me his kids played with these little wood trains all the time," Rainville says. "He asked me if I'd seen them and told me that maybe I should make those. I told him that's not what I did. Well, things can change," he says, grinning. "Things can change in a big way."

Growth has been considerable for Maple Landmark in recent years, partly through the absorption of other toy makers in the state. Rainville has spearheaded the purchase of Troll's Toy Workshop (Barnet), Vermont Wooden Games (Warren), Vermont Country Blocks (Wilder) and Montgomery Schoolhouse (Montgomery) in the past 15 years. Maple Landmark's operation moved from its home in Lincoln to a larger facility in Middlebury in 1996. The new building underwent a considerable expansion in 2000, and the space is already brimming.

Originally carved by hand, Maple Landmark toys are cut with the aid of computers and high-powered machines. Pictured is woodworker Sadie Stowe.

Rainville and Maple Landmark formed an immediate connection to Middlebury after the move. Besides being an active member of the Lincoln community, Rainville also serves on the board of the four-year-old St. Mary's School in Middlebury that his sons attend. Barbara, his sister, a member of the Zoning Board in Lincoln, serves as a youth hockey coach in Middlebury. The Rainvilles say they naturally feel close ties with their communities.

"We're very much Vermonters," Barbara says. "We're rooted here."

Despite Maple Landmark's evident success, Rainville knows his business is operating in unusual and somewhat risky territory. Wooden toys are simply not a hot market as compared to, say, video games and action figures. Rainville says finding customers can be a challenge but never an impassable obstacle.

"Our toys are not fancy and whiz-bang," says Rainville. "Stores are usually interested only in what's new. It's pretty hard to come up with something new when you're dealing with wood toys, but we work hard to bring twists to a very traditional thing.

"It's not a huge market we work in, it's not a growing market. We generally look to sell to specialty toy stores that have different types of products than the big-box stores. We sell to places that have quality toys and a higher price point. We rely on our service and the fact that we really have a unique toy product. There aren't others like us. It's tough, but there's no question you can make a business out of it."

Rainville avoids marketing Maple Landmark products as a return to the past, although he acknowledges that can be part of the appeal for parents and, especially, grandparents. ("We love grandparents," he says. "They have disposable income and they love our products.")

He says he believes it's important to progress rather than sit still and sink. "We dance around the nostalgia thing. We don't want to be a sort of dinosaur. We don't want to be your father's Oldsmobile."

Maple Landmark's customers include big names and small. Clients over the years have included Orvis, Mercedes-Benz, FAO Schwartz and Toys R Us. Regular carriers of Maple Landmark products include widespread chains such as Cracker Barrel and Learning Express and local stores like Apple Mountain and Vermont Gift Barn.

Maple Landmark's NameTrains are particularly big sellers at Apple Mountain, says Cheryl Lampe, marketing manager and Vermont gift-buyer, who says the store has regular customers who buy a NameTrain for every baby born into their families. "Maple Landmark's products are of a very high quality. They are wood-made and non-toxic and kids love them. If something is wrong, there is always somebody there to help us," she adds.

The inherent difficulties of the wooden-toy market ensure that Maple Landmark has few competitors to confront. Rainville says there probably isn't a wooden-toy manufacturer in the United States as large as his business. That status allows Maple Landmark to forge a secure place in the marketplace the name of Maple Landmark is widely known and respected but it also adds to the challenges.

In 1996, Maple Landmark's operation moved from its initial home in Lincoln to larger quarters in Middlebury. Assemblers are, from left, Virginia Prescott, Debra Lucia, Stephanie Masterson and Pam Boyle.

"If we get some product problems, there's no knowledge base to tap anywhere else," says Rainville. "If you make furniture, for example, it's different. Lots of people make furniture. It's not quite so easy for us."

Fortunately, he has been able to rely on an experienced and dedicated group of employees from the beginning. Many of the 30 workers at Maple Landmark have worked at the company for several years. Nine employees are Lincoln residents who continued with Maple Landmark after the move to Middlebury and, of course, there's his family.

His mother, Pat, has worked full-time at Maple Landmark since 1989, when the general store was sold. Harriet Brown, Rainville's maternal grandmother, spends several hours each week performing odd jobs at the facility. Pat was his first-grade teacher in Lincoln. He remembers he was forced to call her Mrs. Rainville in class. He swears there's been no payback now that he has the power.

"I don't make her call me Mr. Rainville," he says with a smile.

Jill came to work at Maple Landmark shortly after giving birth to Adam in 1993. She had worked at a bank, but wanted to avoid turning Adam over to day care. Rainville and Jill knew that with the atmosphere at Maple Landmark they could work and take care of Adam without particular difficulty. So, Jill was soon working in the office, handling some of the bookkeeping. Adam would rest in a seat nearby. The boys have been fixtures at Maple Landmark their whole lives.

"In a lot of ways, Adam [age 9] and Andrew [age 7] have grown up at Maple Landmark," Rainville says.

Barbara, previously a schoolteacher, arrived full-time at Maple Landmark in 1994. Of course, like the rest of the family, she'd been helping with the business for years. One of her duties is organizing and attending industry trade shows, which provide a critical forum for Maple Landmark to reach potential customers.

Barbara says the family spends a great deal of time together away from the office. Much of the clan lives in close proximity to each other in Lincoln. Barbara says workplace disagreements never become family splits.

"We always see each other at home," Barbara says. "Things stay civil. Mike has been really good at giving us responsibilities and trusting us. He's given freedom to all of his supervisors."

Rainville is quick to point out that the Maple Landmark staff comprises its own family, an especially tight-knit group. He says that closeness is reflected in their work.

"It's a small-town type of group," he explained. "A lot of people here have known each other for a long time outside of work. They know they work in an atmosphere where they are appreciated. It's a good mix of people. It shows in how this place runs. Everyone works hard. When you're in manufacturing, you have a tendency to get people who say, 'Oh, this is just my job for right now.' But these people here are dedicated to this job."

Rainville says the employees' investment in Maple Landmark's achievement makes it a place of unusual reliability.

"This isn't a place where people take a day off because there's good powder on the mountain," he says.

"... or because the roads are icy," Barbara adds.

Maple Landmark's NameTrains were named one of the 100 Best Children's Products and one of the 10 Most Socially Responsible Products for 2002 by "Dr. Toy's 100 Best Children's Products." Bob Bougor works in quality assurance.

Rainville's trust in his employees' assiduousness has allowed him to relinquish with confidence some responsibility. The work has changed since he was making cribbage boards by hand. Now the wood is cut with the aid of computers and high-powered machines, but he remains closely involved in every aspect.

"I don't spend most of my day doing what I should be doing; I spend most of my day doing what I want to be doing," he says.

Although he's no longer hand-carving his product, Rainville appears to revel in working with the modern inventions that enable mass production. He laughs off any suggestion that he's not satisfying his creative impulses anymore.

"Everything about running this place is creative," says Rainville, who's president of the Vermont Wood Manufacturer's Society. "I'm not a one-at-a-time artisan. I like the volume, I like dealing with production. I enjoy the procedures of doing a big quantity of product."

Rainville says he's not looking for European vacations and expensive cars from Maple Landmark. He does appreciate that the company he's created has provided his family with a place to work together just like the family farm and the general store before it.

Originally published in April 2003 Business People-Vermont