Maple Landmark Builds on a Strong Foundation + Innovation

Maple Landmark has been making eco-friendly, educational wooden toys, games and gifts since 1979 in Middlebury, Vermont. Maple Landmark is proud to be a local company that supports other local companies who operate in a responsible and sustainable manner. They employ about 40 local folks year around. As a result of these practices, they produce products that have always been safe and of superior quality.

Many people know Maple Landmark for their NameTrains, but they craft a wide array of children’s products including heirloom wooden baby toys, toddler toys, board games and gifts. Made in the USA and treasured worldwide, you can find Maple Landmark at specialty toys stores, fine gift shops, museums, and catalogs.

The Giggle Guide® recently caught up with Maple Landmark for a look behind the scenes of this topnotch brand:

When was your brand born, and what was the initial inspiration?

Michael Rainville’’s company began in the basement of his parents’’ home in Lincoln, Vermont, when at the age of 11, Mike’s mom told him what all mothers have told their children: ‘You need to find something to do.’ Mike had plenty of wood and tools around –as both of his grandparents were carpenters and house builders. Mike’s paternal grandparents were the original ‘flippers’. They moved 19 times in 25 years — buying old farms, fixing them up and selling them. Mike’s maternal grandparents built the house he grew up in and several others in the neighborhood, so working with wood and creating things from scratch came naturally. By 1984, Mike had selected Maple Landmark Woodcraft as his company name as an homage to his maternal grandparent’s farm and maple sugaring business — Maple Landmark Homestead.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when starting?

The biggest challenge when Mike first started was getting materials — being only 11 he didn’t have a driver’s license, so he had to have his father take him to buy lumber!

What is one thing you would have done differently?

There are no regrets; hindsight is 20/20. Each decision was made with the knowledge and understanding that we had at the time and mistakes help us to learn and grow.

What do you feel are the three biggest keys to your success?

  1. Surrounding ourselves with hardworking employees and working hard to keep them.
  2. Staying flexible and innovative. Wooden toys are not a ‘new’ thing, but how we make them is much different than it was even 10 years ago. Integrating new technologies helps us stay competitive and interesting.
  3. Staying true to our roots and who we are. We work to have great customer service. We don’t play games, and with us what you see is what you get: Good products at an honest price regardless of who you are or how big your store is.

Describe a typical new product development cycle for your business.

We don’t chase after fads. We do see what’s out there but only develop products that are true to Maple Landmark.

We have a product development team that meets every week and has representation from all parts of the factory — production, assembly, packaging, testing, sales and marketing. All ideas are brought to the table and the pros and cons are discussed. We discuss how the product fits in with what we already do, the market possibilities, how production will work, how to package it, and the product testing that needs to be done. Sometimes new products move easily through the cycle and sometimes they don’t!

We try to have new product releases for every trade show, keeping in mind upcoming seasons or holidays. We also work toward products for the catalog published in late July. This change in publication date has really allowed our product development to work. A new catalog in January was nearly impossible for us to do because we are out straight with holiday business from September through December and don’t have time to work on new products then when we are always rushed.

Do “green” or eco-friendly concerns influence your business decisions, and if so, how?

We have been green long before green was a ‘thing’. In the factory, we have worked hard to reduce waste, reuse and recycle as much as possible. We are always searching out finishes that perform well and are least ‘chemical’ in nature.

As for products, our line of Schoolhouse Naturals was introduced in 2007. This line of green/eco-friendly products is geared toward ages 3 and under — the age that puts EVERYTHING in their mouth! These products came out just before the big recalls from other toy producers.

The Schoolhouse Naturals line is unfinished — no chemicals — and the growing buzz was that consumers were looking for FSC materials. However, the access to the supply of certified lumber was limited and going 200 miles round trip (pollution, transportation cost, use of fossil fuels) to find more was really counter to being green. So we decided to use locally responsibly harvested lumber instead. Once we explain how we made our decision, our retailers and consumer are very happy to purchase the Schoolhouse Naturals products.

What is one new trend you’re seeing in the marketplace?

More and more people are beginning to understand the economic and environmental impact of the ‘global economy’. So the trend, though not new, is still building towards Made in America.

What types of marketing have been most effective for your business?

We tend to go for the smaller/inexpensive approaches — we take advantage of opportunities at trade shows to showcase particular products. NY NOW has the Sustainability and Made in USA showcases. Store owners often mention they see us in these displays and come to purchase items for their store.

We report out on new products to various trade publications, websites and product directories. We have been around a long time, in comparison, and staying true to who we are. Other retailers are great representatives for us as well. We hear them say ‘You need to carry Maple Landmark’ to others in our booth!

How does your business make use of the Internet?

We have a consumer website that has a lot of functionality — nametrain builder, ‘find a dealer’, information on product safety and testing, and our history. We also have Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. We are currently working on a flip-side of our website that would be for dealers to see new product and be able to place orders.

What is the biggest challenge your business faces today?

There are actually 2 challenges:

  1. Staying on top of rules, regulations and requirements on both the State and Federal level that sometimes conflict with one another.
  2. Finding competent and qualified job applicants.

What is one change/addition that’s had a positive impact for your business in the last year?

We have worked very hard to refine many of the lean manufacturing concepts, especially the ‘two box’ or ‘just in time’ production methodology. This has helped us to put resources to the right products at the right time and not put resources into products that might not be fast sellers.

If you had one piece of advice for someone entering the children’s market, what would it be?

A tough thing to do, but remove yourself from the product and get honest and useful reactions — not from family or friends… they’ll never tell you it was a dumb idea. Does the product stand on its own?