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Sunday
Oct292017

Woodchuck plants a tree for every product sold

Article by Claudia Kittock, photos by Rick Kittock

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck would chuck wood? Remember that? Most of us used to enjoy trying to say this tongue twister and probably had no idea if there was any meaning behind this phrase. This week, I was excited to visit a vibrant company in Northeast Minneapolis named Woodchuck that is making wonderful products while helping the environment.

I first learned about Woodchuck from Michael Mader, founder of Hippy Feet. Michael introduced me to John Guenveur and suggested I interview him and go visit Woodchuck. I’m so glad I followed up.

John Guenveur holding a Wood Journal

Woodchuck was founded by Ben VandenWymelenberg while he was in college at the University of Minnesota. Ben was frustrated by a smart phone with a cracked screen and, as an architecture major, designed a case for the phone. He used a laser cutter to cut out a piece of sticky wood veneer that he attached to the back of the phone, reinforcing it. Friends noticed and wanted one, as did a buyer at Target. They offered to buy thousands for $6 each and then sell them at $19 retail. Family and friends lent Ben $60,000 to fill the Target order.

While Ben paid back his lenders, with interest, the experience with Target was a failure. As most small business owners discover, education happens through experience, and Woodchuck had succeeded in learning, but not monetarily.

Ben had been awarded a scholarship for graduate school to M.I.T. and now had to decide if he wanted to do that or start a business. While interning his senior year at the Minneapolis architectural firm Cuningham Group, he developed a relationship with the founder, John Cuningham. He asked Cuningham’s opinion, who responded, “He was a fine young architect, but if you heard him talk about his business aspirations…it was a no-brainer. Why go to graduate school. And, so far, that business has been a whirlwind. And he’s had the time of his life.”

About a year after Ben started Woodchuck, John Guenveur connected with him and asked if he needed help. John was working for Best Buy and studying business at Carlson. He wanted ‘real world’ experience and Woodchuck sounded like an interesting idea.

In the early years, Ben got the idea to plant a tree for every product Woodchuck sells. In early October of this year, the company planted its ceremonial 1 millionth tree. In addition to Minnesota and Iowa (141,462), their trees can be found in a number of countries, including: Madagascar (603,246), Indonesia (170,000), Nepal (90,000), Peru (4411), France (1176), and New Zealand (1000). If you're keeping score, that's seven countries, and a total of 1,011,286 trees.

Sales have doubled every year since 2012, and the mission of the company is to put nature back into peoples' lives. Per Ben, “We are meant to have a deep connection with the Earth, and we want to be a daily reminder of that with our real wood products. It's also important to us to bring jobs back to America, while bringing quality products back to consumers. With every product sold, we plant a tree. It's our way of making a better world for future generations. It's not about us, it's about our planet and how we can make a difference now.” 

Woodchuck is a terrific small, local business to check out. Their products are inventive, useful, and pretty. While often used in corporate gifting, the items are also very appropriate for individual use. Woodchuck employs local workers, and is dedicated to making the world better.

If all of this sounds exciting, you may want to get involved. Some of the best ways to support this fascinating company are:

• Learn more about Woodchuck, follow them on Facebook
Donate to their cause
• Visit their company at 610 9th Street NE, Suite 100, in Minneapolis.  It's right in our backyard!
.

Claudia can be reached at claudia@millcitytimes.org 

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