MANUFACTURING: Exporting the “Up North” lifestyle worldwide

PETOSKEY – Bill Gates has one. Several Big Three automotive executives and their Japanese counterparts boast them. Hint #1: It’s from Michigan. Hint #2: It does not have wheels.

In Northern Michigan, where the landscape is vast and the construction industry cannot keep up with demand, one builder is exporting cedar log homes to sites around the world. Town & Country Cedar Homes has successfully married yesterday’s homestyle with today’s affluence, making Petoskey the destination for upscale country lodges. Town & Country is the world’s largest custom cedar log home builder, a title which has earned their craftsmen the right to travel from Silicon Valley to Mount Fuji, erecting modern-day manses out of cedar timbers.

Town & Country CEO Steven Biggs, standing in the great room of a newly completed cedar log home in Petoskey, says the allure of a cedar log home is powerful. “The high ceilings, the exposed beams, the oversized fireplace, the loft, the split-timber stairs–these are features that create a unique emotion. The urban walk-in condo is elegant. But this,” he says, opening his arms wide, “is hearth and home. It’s sophisticated, yet emotionally comfortable. It’s home.”

Founded in 1946 in Boyne Falls by Bernie Kondrat and Ben Organek, Town & Country today employs 100 professionals and craftsmen. Its Northern Michigan complex includes offices, a mill operation, design centers, and a model bed-and-breakfast, where prospective buyers are invited to spend a night and experience the aura of such a home.

Having reached annual record revenues, the company remains upbeat about the future. The international market has proven a pleasant surprise, as families from Canada, South Korea, and Japan join the list of customers from places like Bay Harbor and Bloomfield Hills.

Several cultural factors are contributing to Town & Country’s success beyond Northern Michigan. After a period of suburban expansion and 20,000 square-foot estates, America’s home owners have identified a new frontier: the cottage. A comfortable, cozy North Country-style second home provides a perfect setting for making memories.

Biggs says another phenomenon has boosted his business. As Americans live longer, many parents and grandparents are building cedar “lodges” as magnets for their far-flung families: this home is large, architecturally wonderful and modern enough to attract the kids back from across the country.

And although the appearance is akin to 1850, these homes are decidedly 21st century. Many homeowners choose multiple modem connections and a loft office. Each Town & Country home is built using the company’s patented post-and-sill system, which ensures a tight, strong, well-insulated structure. Add a surround sound stereo system, flat screen TV, large fireplace and luxurious furniture, and these lodges make you want to settle in for the long winter. Even in summer.

It’s not unusual for some homeowners– who become involved with the planning and building process–to regularly commute to Petoskey to check on millwork progress. And some families like their homes so much they partner with the company. Using their own home as a model, couples market the Town & Country concept in their own communities.

With northern cedar such an integral part of the custom log and timber crafted home building boom, what will come of the industry if the economy softens? Biggs says he’s confident the craft and traditions will endure.

“Remember, we’re employing craftspeople whose families have been in this business for generations. That’s how Boyne Falls Log Homes, our original company, got its start. So these are custom, signature homes that have a very unique and lasting tradition about them.

“Also, our company is fortunate enough to have a strong vertical foundation. Much of everything that goes into our homes is created at our own mill from our own timber stocks.”

In the meantime, the company, in part due to a strong Web site presence (www.cedarhomes.com), is banking on another record year. And the irony of marketing a centuries old tradition, like log homes on the Web, suits them–just fine. BN

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