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Glidden business finds Northwoods products market niche
PHOTO: Ed Schmocker
There’s nothing like the smell of fresh cut boughs from the north woods. And, for several regional businesses, that smell can mean money. Former U.S. Forest Service worker and teacher Steve Lewis recognized this back in the mid-1970s and decided to make a living out of sharing the woods with everyone by making wreaths.
In 1976, Lewis started Winter Woods, Inc., working out of his cabin. Today, the thriving business takes up four warehouses in Glidden, occupying 55,000 square feet plus an additional 7,000 square foot warehouse in Jefferson, Wis., where Lewis now lives.
While the company started with seasonal wreath making, it has expanded to be much more, said local manager Ed Schmocker. He was brought into the business in the late-80s to make it a year-round operation. The company has added two additional divisions: Northern Lights, which includes cones and rocks that burn in various colors, and Forest Natural Products, which provides wholesale or custom-packaged items from the woods such as mosses, pine cones and twigs.
The Ashland Area Development Corporation (AADC) saw a lot of potential in their business model and has helped them throughout the years.
“We have consistently helped Winter Woods over the years because our job is to work with people like Steve Lewis to start a business and to continually work with them when they need assistance to grow,” said Dale Kupczyk, AADC Executive Director.
The company has benefitted with help from Impact 7 for their initial building and various revolving loans for additions and new buildings. Today, the company is much more diversified.
“Our wreath business is about half of what we do now,” Schmocker said. “Northern Lights makes about 30 percent with Forest Naturals making up the rest.” This allows for Winter Woods to be open nearly year-round.
“We close down in January. In February I’ll start doing callbacks. By summer we’ll be up to 20 employees and then this will grow up to 90 by wreath season,” he said. The work will produce about $600,000 in payroll.
Over the course of a single six-week season, those 90 employees will crank out about 100,000 wreaths, swags and centerpieces. The products are loaded up on UPS trailers, sometimes filling two or three per day, and shipped off to various places around the United States. About 25 percent of sales are wholesale while the rest are fulfilling mail order and fundraiser orders. As for supplies, the 200 tons of boughs needed to produce the products will all come from the Wisconsin northwoods.
“All of the boughs we buy are local,” Schmocker said. “They tend to come from private or national forest land. Luckily we have about one million acres of that nearby.” He will spend about $120,000 buying boughs from approximately 50 different folks in the region who either cut recreationally on the weekends or as their full-time job. He’ll also buy the bulk of raw materials sold through Forest Naturals by local gatherers.
Schmocker goes on to say that a lot of people go into the wreath business but few last a long time in the market.
“It is relatively easy to get into the wreath business. Anyone can do it, but a lot get in and get out.” Schmocker said it’s because the season is extremely short, which leaves a ton of demands to satisfy and no room for error.
Over the years, Schmocker said Winter Woods has found ways to respond to increased demand, along with finding a great source of committed reliable workers. They have also made investments in infrastructure to ensure the company has the tools needed to be successful. This, coupled with a vision to become year-round, are just a few of the reasons the business is so successful.
“They saw a market for their product, started small, have continually added new product lines and have good employees and management,” he said.
Beth Probst is a freelance writer in Iron River.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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