Master of Play: Barrett Brown

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Manufacturing

By Will Bleakley  Photographed by Benjamin Magro

Manufacturing is alive and kicking in Maine, with 55,285 jobs thanks in part to heavy-hitters like Bath Iron Works and IDEXX Laboratories. More than half of these jobs are in production.

Since taking the helm at CedarWorks in 2000, Barrett Brown has navigated the Rockport manufacturer of high-end wooden play sets through a sea change in the industry. Asian play-set manufacturers, nonexistent in the nineties, when Brown’s father was CedarWorks’ president, now comprise 80 percent of the marketplace. Brown double-downed on his commitment to manufacturing in Maine and now ships CedarWorks play sets all around the world.

How did you and your father differentiate CedarWorks from other manufacturers?
My father’s view was, what does the customer want, and if the best way to deliver that is for us to be the manufacturer, then we’ll do that. He wasn’t going to out-manufacture everyone. Someone would always find a margin and a price point he couldn’t compete at. He wanted to have the highest quality and best service. It’s a different goal.

How has having your own kids and seeing them interact with your products affected how you run the company?

In thousands of ways I don’t even know. Consciously, it’s reinforced the importance of providing a platform for kids to explore physically, socially, and intellectually. Very specifically, having kids convinced me that we ought to start building indoor play sets. Whether you’re in Texas in the summer or Maine in the winter, so much more time is spent indoors. So I hacked apart an outdoor CedarWorks set and put it in our basement. It was amazing. It became the center of our kids’ universe.

Why manufacture in Maine when 95 percent of your business is out of state?
Our family loves living here. We have amazing employees. The availability of great hardworking people is an excellent reason to have a manufacturing company in Maine. But if one were strictly making a business calculation, we’d be somewhere else. I wish quality of life wasn’t the only reason to choose to manufacture in Maine and the playing field were closer to level.

What are you most proud of at CedarWorks?
When people write us letters, thanking us. I say, “Wait, you bought our product, we’re thanking you.” But they’re thanking us for the experience we’re giving them.

Will Bleakley is the associate editor at Down East magazine.

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