By Kayla Remer
HOWARD LAKE, MN Merlyn Schmieg of Howard Lake drove his ‘65 Chevy Impala to his first day of work at Dura Supreme Cabinetry, then located in Cokato, Aug. 7, 1968, and April 8, he drove it to his last day of work at Dura, more than 47 years later.
Growing up on a farm near Howard Lake, Merlyn knew the value of hard work and determination, and attributes that to his success at Dura.
“My siblings and I picked up a good work ethic from both my mom and dad,” he said. “They taught us that when you’re doing something, whether it’s a job or anything else, to do a good job at it and do it right.”
After high school, Merlyn wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but knew he needed to start somewhere.
Before leaving for basic training with the National Guard in 1968, he walked into Dura Supreme and let them know he was interested in a job there, and that he would be back in a few months.
He didn’t have to reach out when he came back, though they were already looking for him.
After returning from basic training in Fort Jackson, SC and helping his dad on the farm for a few months, Schmieg returned to Dura and asked if the company still needed help. He ended up starting the next morning, Aug. 7, 1968, almost half a century ago.
He started on the production floor, working in the door department.
From there, he went to the maintenance department, which was just a one-man department at the time. It remained that way for about four years, until the company hired another person.
After 12 years of working in the maintenance department, Schmieg had the opportunity to do some drafting for the research and development (R&D) department.
“I did drafting part time and maintenance part time,” Schmieg said. “By that time, the maintenance department had grown because we were in a bigger building in Howard Lake.”
After about a year of doing part-time drafting, he was offered a full-time position in the R&D department, where he helped develop new products and ideas.
“That position was a variety of different things, and was very interesting,” Schmieg said. He remained in that position for the next 32 years.
“I was in the office a lot, but I also got to be out in the plant when new products were implemented,” he said. “I think it’s nice to have that sort of variety.”
Over the years, he’s seen many changes happen in the company. “When I started, we were located in Cokato and there was probably a total of 40 employees in the plant there,” Schmieg said. “We added onto the plant at least twice there, and then, eventually, ran out of space and moved to Howard Lake.”
The technology has also changed. “That’s the biggest change I’ve seen,” he said. “It’s a world of difference. We started out with basically the same equipment you would have in a home shop. A table saw, hand routers, and small machines is what we worked with.”
Today, Dura uses Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines. “It’s just a lot less handling of material, which is good because that means there’s less handling damages. They’re good changes, because the equipment is just so much more precise,” Schmieg said.
The technology the company has today is something they would have never dreamed about 40 years ago. “Back then, it was just the way it was done. Everyone did it like that, so we never thought anything of it,” he said.
The Curved Door
Aside from technology and growth, Schmieg said the products themselves were changing. One specific product change he remembers working on is curved cabinet doors.
“Dura was looking to get into curved cabinet doors about 25 years ago and I’d been thinking about that a long time,” he said. Three weeks after it was mentioned in a meeting, Schmieg brought in the first curved cabinet door he had made in his wood shop at home.
They liked what they saw, so he gave them pictures of each step of how he did it.
“They made it a project to set up and develop curved doors,” he said.
Although the doors aren’t very popular anymore, Schmieg prides himself in knowing he created the first one at Dura. “The process for creating them was manual and more difficult. It wasn’t CNC, so it took awhile to get the process set,” he said. “But once we had a process, we would create probably 12 to 15 a week, back then.”
Human Resource Manager Steve Michael says Schmieg has always been a hard worker, and that shows with the curved door project.
“He was never afraid to tackle some hard challenges that others doubted could be accomplished,” Michael said.
“Merlyn is a very bright and consummate gentleman,” Michael said. “He shared everything he learned with his coworkers, especially the young engineers. He is a very unselfish guy, and we were lucky to have him with us.”
Dura wasn’t the plan
Schmieg said staying at Dura was never his plan. “I never thought I would stay there. You know, you never plan on staying at the same place for 47 years,” he said. “But I thought, I like it well enough to do it until I figure out what I really want to do.”
He never did figure out anything better he wanted to do, so he stayed there.
“I feel very appreciative that I got to work at a great company that’s so close to home. I never had to go looking for any other jobs, and I think that makes me very fortunate,” Schmieg said. He added that he feels very lucky to have worked his whole life in the community he grew up in. Not many can say the same. “I never had to deal with rush hour, I worked with wonderful people, and I had a short drive,” he said.
Working at the same company for more than 47 years makes retirement bittersweet.
“I have some anxiety about leaving a place I’ve been at for so long, and also leaving the people I’ve worked with for so long,” Schmieg said, “but I think it’s going to be good. I’ll have more time to work on projects around the house I’ve been putting off.”
Merlyn and his wife, Karen, will stay around the Howard Lake area, as it is home for both of them and two of their three children. They have eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
They do plan to visit their son and his family in Missouri more often, now that they will have extra time on their hands.
Karen, who packed Merlyn’s lunch every day for the past 43 years, is excited to have him home and retired. As far as lunch goes now, she’ll most likely continue making it for him, but now she’ll get to enjoy it with him.
Although Karen already volunteers around the community, they both hope to volunteer more now that Merlyn is retired.
Merlyn said he would tell any young person who is just starting their career to set goals and plan financially ahead, so they are able to retire. “Financial planning is so important,” he said. “Especially, this day and age.”
Merlyn drove off in his ’65 Chevy April 8 for the last time as a Dura Supreme employee.
After 47-plus years, there is certainly a lot of Dura in Merlyn, and his co-workers would also say the opposite: There is certainly a lot of Merlyn in Dura’s products.