Universal Forest Products Inc. reported April 16 a loss of $1.2 million in the first quarter of 2009, about a quarter the $4.6 million loss it incurred in the opening three months of 2008, even though net sales dropped 26% to $361.7 million from $489.5 million in the year-earlier quarter.

Sales to the site-built construction market sank 43.2% to $60.8 million. The Grand Rapids, MIch.-based company noted that housing starts have shrunk markedly--the federal government reported April 16 that starts nationally in March were down 48.4% from the March 2008 rate--while composite prices for lumber are 19% below where they were last year. Universal is focusing on multifamily housing and commercial construction, where it has identified opportunities, the company said in a statement.

"We are pleased with results like these in tough economic times and in a quarter that historically comprises a slow selling season," CEO Michael B. Glenn said. "These numbers reflect production efficiencies resulting from the improvement efforts of our employees and a strong business model that promotes sales to multiple industries and markets. ... We continue to size our capacity to meet market demand as necessary, but after a year of difficult decisions and moves, there is a renewed optimism and a bounce in our step."

Sales to the do-it-yourself market via retail-oriented stores slipped 4.2% to $168.1 million. Universal said it benefits from sales of new products

such as its Capricorn line of decking and lawn and garden products, and by adding additional customer locations. Sales of industrial packaging and components slid 25.8% to $103.7 million, while sales to the manufactured housing industry sank 52.2% to $36.6 million.