Constantly following God’s calling, the couple behind this Durand, Ill., woodshop have grown from a small team to a premier destination for a wide variety of lumber-related needs.
Mike and Pat Mulvain took a few financial resources and a fascination with the timber business, mixed those with their deep faith, and watched in wonder as an unlikely business success played out over the next 27 years. Mulvain Woodworks near Durand, Ill., went from a small, portable sawmill to a one-stop lumber processor serving anyone from DIY crafters to high-end homebuilders.
It happened despite 10 years of the worst economy in their lifetimes, and despite a fire that nearly ended the whole venture in one day. The Mulvains’ road to business success has been full of twists and turns.
What do I really want to do? Mike asked himself upon taking early retirement in 1990 from his job as operations manager at Weyerhauser in Rockford.
“First I went to college – here I was, 47 years old, with these kids,” he laughs. “Then I went fishing for a week. Got tired of that. But I did realize I like to be outside. I like to be in the timber – I hunt and I fish. I cut firewood for decades and sold it.”
A family friend, Roy Wilke, worked in the timber business: finding it, cutting it, drying it and selling it. Mike was intrigued, but he didn’t know much about wood other than it could be burned for heat.
“So I went and talked with him and he said, ‘Yeah, you can tag along with me.’ He paid me a few dollars an hour, and I learned.”
Never did Pat dream she would one day trade her own 30-year nursing career for the lumber business. That would come later. For the time being, Mike was faithful over a little. He bought a portable sawmill and hauled it around the area, rough-sawing customers’ trees into lumber on-site.
He also bought a book by the Audubon Society: a field guide to identifying trees by their leaves and bark. Now as he and Pat went into the forest to cut firewood, they also were gathering knowledge.
They both knew they were onto something, but they weren’t sure where it would lead. So they took a step of faith and bought a tract of farmland from Wilke – the spot that Mulvain Woodworks now occupies – and built a house and a shed for the sawmill.
“Once you can saw logs into lumber, there’s no limit,” Mike says. “People asked, ‘Can you dry it?’ So, we built a kiln so we could dry it. Then the next thing was, “Can you make something to mill? Make boards?’ And it just went from there. Then we started making mouldings with a real small machine and just kept moving ahead and getting more of a network.”
Plenty of timber people were willing to share their knowledge once they realized the Mulvains were serious about this and were quick, humble learners. Mike went to lumber-grading school in Wisconsin, where he befriended another shop owner.
“We were doing the same thing but he was about six years longer in it than us,” Pat says. “So, when we’d get to a certain point we’d say, ‘Can we talk to you?’”
“He saved us a lot of learning the hard way,” Mike adds.
Pat found a mentor, too, learning to hand-grind cutting heads for their moulding machine from a craftsman in South Beloit, Ill. She went on to create 500 custom knives for 500 different woodwork profiles.
“And I still have all my fingers,” she laughs.
Test of Faith
All the while, Mulvain Woodworks became known and trusted by the area’s high-end homebuilding industry for its woodwork and flooring. They brokered lumber, too, buying from other mills and selling to builders and remodelers.
Then came 2008. The bottom dropped out of the economy and homebuilding in the region came to a dead stop. The Mulvains adapted. They kept milling and drying lumber, but also moved more and more into custom work – rare in this region. If someone was restoring a house, or had fire or water damage, Mulvain had hundreds of woodwork profiles and could match the originals.
Then came June 1, 2012. An electrical fire destroyed the shop and nine milling machines inside. Well into what others would call retirement age, Mike and Pat were ready to accept the fire as an endpoint. Then they learned that a huge chunk of the insurance settlement would be eaten by taxes if they didn’t reinvest it in the business.
“And I thought, no way,” Mike says.
They considered scaling back – reducing staff and just keeping the sawmill and the drying kilns going. But for a couple accustomed to taking leaps of faith, this option wasn’t attractive.
Then they got another idea. They could double down on 20 years of accumulated expertise and customers. They could convert a warehouse building to a new shop. They could buy used equipment online at pennies on the dollar in the still-bad economy.
This option felt more in tune with the prayerful approach Mike and Pat always had taken. So they took another leap and endured a few more lean years. But today, because of that decision – and a competitive advantage of being able to transform trees to lumber to finished products all on the same site – business is booming again.
“We can make things that people can’t go to the lumber yard and buy,” Mike says. “We have a lot of knowledge with the experienced people we have, to go in and help people make choices. We can do things for them that they probably didn’t even think of that really enhance their building.”
Relationships like that have been the real investment all along.
“This is not a get-wealthy business,” Mike says. “But we survive and we do the things we love to do. We look at it as the Lord is providing for us and we’re able to be a witness and testimony for the people who work for us and our customers.”
They’ve brought their grandson Devin, 21, into the business with the intent of one day handing it off to him.
Mike smiles at Pat. “She’s 75 and I’ll be 77. So, it’s going to have to happen,” he laughs.
“So, we’re still going,” Pat adds. “We had wanted to retire by now, but the Lord has different plans. He said, ‘I’ve got work for you guys,’ and we’ve been on a journey ever since.”