Family-Owned Gaylord Company Succeeds Through Creativity & Flexibility
The Campbells: Jason, Gianna and Michael
Jason Campbell has been officially at the helm of Unidoor Corporation as president/CEO since 2009, but he’s been with the Gaylord-based company for most of his life. The family-owned company has been around even longer.
Unidoor Corporation was founded by Jerome “Bud” Bloom. Bud owned many companies, starting with Lakeland Doors, which opened in 1948 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He went on to open numerous businesses throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, all of which produced different parts of doors and millwork.
“At one point, there were 12 companies under one umbrella between the two states,” Jason said. “One plant would make wood veneer; another would cut stock for frames … so all of these different plants would be making different parts for the doors.”
For years, Jason’s dad, Thomas Campbell, had a close working relationship with Bud. Thomas would accompany Bud when he picked up parts for various machines. On one of those trips, Bud expressed interest in purchasing another plant.
“They drove around the [Twin] Cities, and eventually out of them, and came across the spot we are today. One thing led to another, and here we are,” Jason said.
In 1973, Bud opened Unidoor Corporation in Gaylord, Minnesota, in what was once an old alfalfa pelletizing plant. After working under Bud’s guidance for years, Thomas and his work partner, Randy Hlavac, purchased Unidoor from him and moved the entire company to Gaylord.
Today Unidoor is its own entity. After Randy died in 1992, Thomas became the sole owner, a role he maintained until his death in 2009.
“I was going to college when Randy passed away, which left my dad alone down here at Unidoor. So my brother Michael and I came down to help him out,” Jason recalled. “I had worked at Unidoor before that part time, but then I came on full time. So, really, I’ve been working here my whole life.”
The company remains a family business to this day.
“Today, my mother, Gianna Campbell, owns the company with [me] and my brother Jeffrey,” Jason said. “Recently, my brother Michael has returned to our family business, as well.”
Unidoor Corporation is a wholesale manufacturer that sells products to big-box companies like Menards and Lowes, to “pre-hanger” companies that assemble door components, and to lumber yards and building material companies. It also sells products for the residential market, and has worked with commercial offices and banks.
Plant manager, Ken Garman
Unidoor team members manufacture interior wood doors and related millwork, including doorstops and doorjambs. The company ships material and products all over the United States and Canada, though Jason said most of their business comes from areas around the Midwest.
“We have shipped all over the country, but it just depends on the customer,” Jason said. “Typically, when we send truckloads of doors, it’s regional because you’re shipping hollow core doors, which means you’re shipping a lot of air. With the amount of doors we ship at a time, they can only go so far before a competitor can save on shipping. That’s why the Midwest is our main pocket for sales.”
In addition to doors, Unidoor manufactures doorstops and jambs. Unidoor works with 20 different wood species, though Jason said only half are used regularly. The other 10 varieties are used for specialty runs that require less-common woods, like hickory or African mahogany.
“We make a variety of widths for jambs,” COO Ken Garman said. “Really, we can produce anything from 3 to 12 inches, though most jambs are sized between 4 to 5 inches.”
Over the years, Jason has worked to engineer machinery on-site at Unidoor, keeping as much work in-house as possible. It’s turned out to be a smart business move for the company.
A few years ago, Unidoor created a unique new product. The Uni-White Jamb encapsulates wood doorjambs in a white coating that performs better than paint. The pre-primed jambs require no preparation and allow consumers to paint them any color they like. In the past, the company would have spent time and money to send its wood jambs to a separate Twin Cities company to be primed. Then Unidoor would have to wait for them to be shipped back before they could be sold.
“Having the jambs already colored white saves our customers a step,” Jason said. “We wanted to compete with the market. Instead, we were shipping our products out and losing money in the process. This product has alleviated that problem.”
Unidoor is also driving cost savings by building its own equipment whenever possible. Building on-site machinery from the ground up has become a mission for the business. It’s also one more way Unidoor can stand out from its competitors.
“With the machinery we’ve built and what little we’ve bought, we’ve been able to diversify our offerings,” Jason said. “We decided that what would be best is to not pigeonhole ourselves into what we can make but try our best and produce it. If a cabinet company wants us to produce a panel cutout for their cabinets, we can do that.
“We truly pride ourselves on customer service and the safety of our employees. We’ve always been a company where a customer can come to us and say, ‘Can you do this?’ And we’ll look into it. If we can’t do it on one of our machines, we’ll build a machine to do it.”
In addition to building its own machines, Unidoor also sharpens its own tooling.
“It’s just important to us to try to do as much as we can in-house,” Jason said. “It helps with cost savings.”
Another cost saver for Unidoor is becoming a nearly zero-waste facility.
“We used to be throwing so much wood away,” Jason said. “Throughout the years, we’ve really cut that down to become close to zero waste.”
As Ken explained, Unidoor now reuses most of its wood scraps to create other job components. For example, material that can’t be used to make high-quality jambs can be used as pallet material for shipping products instead.
“We have a wood grinder that we use for everything less than 8 inches,” Ken said. “Everything else is ground up into sawdust and blown into a sawdust trailer, which is then sold to farmers who use it for animal bedding.”
Jason said repurposing scrap lumber started as a cost-savings plan, but it quickly turned into an environmental initiative once they realized how much product was being sent to the landfills each year.
“You know, a lot of the materials that we get in for our door and jamb products come in packaging,” Jason said. “A lot of it is two-by-fours. Think pieces of wood and pallets. We used to have to pay to haul it away. Now, we can do it in-house and reuse everything that comes in.”
Back in ‘73, when Bud purchased the company, numerous Quonset huts stood on the property and served as outbuildings to the operation. Today, Unidoor occupies roughly 120,000 square feet in Gaylord, next to the train tracks, which is pivotal for their receiving operations. The facility has grown substantially but still occupies the original land it started on, partially due to a massive fire in 2003.
“We had a big fire on Easter in 2003,” Jason said. “Half of our plant burned down.”
An investigation discovered that the cause of the fire was arson. An ex-Unidoor employee, with a few accomplices, broke into the plant and started it. The fire grew larger and larger until, eventually, the whole door department was engulfed in flames and burned down. It took 10 to 12 area fire departments to put out the inferno.
Jason recalls his father weighing their options at the time: “At that point, obviously, we looked at what do we want to do? I remember my dad saying, ‘Do we want to throw in the towel or rebuild somewhere else?’”
But throwing in the towel wasn’t an option Thomas Campbell or his family wanted to consider.
“The way I grew up, and the way my dad was and how he was so caring about people … he taught us that you might only have 50 employees, but you have about 300 with their families, husbands, wives and children,” Jason said. “So, it was very important to keep Unidoor here and to keep it here for a long time to come.”
Unidoor moved all door department employees into its jamb department to keep them employed during the rebuilding phase. A year to the day after the fire, Unidoor was back up and running, making their first door in the newly built space.
“We’re a family-run business,” Jason said. “Continuing that way was important to us.”
The Unidoor Corporation crew.
Today, the Unidoor Gaylord factory is home to 40 employees. Although finding employees before the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t always easy, it is even more difficult now. Jason estimates recruiting has been two to three times harder since the shutdown.
“People were just used to staying home,” Jason said. “I think people’s expectations have changed now. There’s a different focus that people have. We’re a manufacturing company; we can’t just run once and a while. We have to have enough people to produce the product and run our machines.”
Though Unidoor has experienced a labor shortage as of late, Jason is proud of his crew and said there is a plus side to what they’ve experienced over the last few years.
“Almost half of our employees have been here more than 20 years, 10 more than 30 years, and five have been here more than 40 years,” he said. “That has really helped us out. Even before COVID, Ken worked really hard with his employees to diversify their knowledge around the plant to cross-train them on the different types of machinery. Our staff has seemed to like that. People don’t want to do the same thing day in and day out; they like to go in and do something different.”
Ken agrees that cross-training employees has helped with labor shortages.
“We still have to make doors no matter what,” Ken said.
While COVID-19 had a negative impact on staffing, it did not have the same effect on the demand for Unidoor products. The number of orders actually increased during the pandemic.
“I was very surprised throughout COVID and before, actually,” Jason said. “We were busy, but when COVID hit, we were extremely busy. Our lead time tripled because of the materials and how swamped with orders we were.”
Jason said Unidoor has never been too adversely impacted by what is happening in the markets because doors have always been a customer need.
“We were considered an essential plant during COVID, so we were able to remain open the whole time,” he said.
“Part of the reason we were so busy during that time was backwards,” Ken added. “A lot of customers were importing products like jambs and buying imported primed jambs because they could get them cheaper from outside the United States. But with the shipping crisis, suddenly these businesses couldn’t get them fast enough, so companies were scrambling to buy domestically from places like Unidoor. Because more people were buying locally, that created a huge number of orders and back-orders for us.”
Over the past 10 years, Jason has moved much of Unidoor’s product sourcing from international to domestic sources.
“We used to import 60 to 70 percent of materials from around the world from countries including China, Taiwan, Canada, the Philippines, Africa and Russia,” Jason explained. “Then the industry changed. Taiwan used all their wood, and then it picked up in the Philippines. Within the last five to 10 years, we started concentrating on moving to domestic suppliers.”
The decision to source locally has paid off, given recent struggles with imports. Today, Unidoor utilizes domestic suppliers for 80 to 90 percent of its outsourcing. It’s a decision driven partly by choice and partly due to lead times and shipping issues.
Unidoor team members constructing a door.
“Definitely in the last few years, we’ve struggled with getting materials coming in within a timely fashion, and pricing has been a whole other issue,” Jason said. “There were times when we didn’t know when the product would come in. Everyone in the country was scrambling. It really helped that we moved most of our items domestically.”
If Unidoor had continued working with international suppliers as much as in the past, Jason said he doesn’t know what he would have done during the pandemic.
“We wouldn’t have had any product to work with because the ports are all plugged up,” Jason said. “When working with international suppliers, we’d pay about $3,000 for a shipping container that carried about $30,000 to 40,000 worth of supplies. Now, people are bidding on containers and paying upwards of $25,000 for one container. When that’s half of the amount of your product (cost) in it … we can’t afford that. So, we lucked out in a way. It was good timing.”
Jason said over the past few years the organization has certainly kept him on his toes, but it goes with the territory of the business.
“Just like most companies in a field like ours, things evolve over time, and you just have to be flexible,” Jason explained. “At different periods of time, different species of wood might be popular, just like different wood grains are popular. So even the real-wood style products are cyclical. It’s a lot of work, but we keep working on changing when needed.”
Unidoor’s relatively small staff of 40 has helped the organization stay flexible. Jason’s quick to share credit with his staff when it comes to customer services, as well.
“Our concentration is keeping and building very good relationships with our customers and our vendors,” Jason said. “We concentrate on getting back to people as soon as possible and giving out the correct information. We double- and triple-check our quality before we ship it out. What we ship out is going to be good, high quality and people realize that’s what they can expect when they order through us.”
47709 Highway 19 West
Gaylord, MN 55334
Phone: (612) 332-8364
Photos by Jonathan Smith