Commerce: Three generations of Johnsons build business success
When someone calls Dick Johnson Inc., that person is guaranteed to talk to someone named Johnson. That fact is at the heart of the company’s goal of reliability, trust and transparency, reflected in their motto: “A name you can trust.”
But don’t ask for Dick, who retired 10 years ago. “We thought about changing the name,” says current company president and Dick’s son, Russ. “In fact, Dad suggested it. But I felt it’s important to keep that tie to the past. We’re proud of what we all built together, and I think he’s proud that we kept the name.”
Dick opened the business in 1972, when he and his wife, Diane, moved the family from the Milwaukee area. At first, he concentrated on septic systems and excavation.
Russ and his brother, Rick, worked with their dad when they were in high school, and Russ started taking courses in soils at Nicolet College and the University of Wisconsin. At one point, the company employed eight people, including Diane, in the office.
When Russ took over from his dad in 1982, he made a few changes. “We diversified, branching out into other areas,” he says.
Much of what the company does is technical and exacting, benefiting from not only the experience behind the Johnson name, but their strong ties to the community. Russ knows the soils and land here, and that knowledge is invaluable.
Building codes and regulations governing septic systems are strong now, according to Russ, and he hopes they stay that way.
“Clean water is our golden jewel in this area,” he says. “Some people want to relax regulations, but if everyone does what they want, it will lead to chaos.”
Through continuing education courses that Russ and his son, Curt, take to update their licenses, they have learned just how special the Northwoods’ water resources are. “In over half the states, they can’t drink untreated ground water,” Russ says. “We don’t want that to happen here.”
Now, the company ticks along quite nicely with Russ and Curt out in the field, and Russ’s wife, Cheryl, managing the office. “What you see is what you get,” he says. “We decided to stay small. We can rely on each other and our customers can rely on us.”
Curt joined the company full-time in 1996, after discovering his plans to pursue a business degree weren’t to his liking.
“I really didn’t like school,” he says. “Then I got a job at the post office, but I didn’t like being inside all the time, doing the same things over and over. I love the challenges of this job and doing something different every day.”
Cheryl and Russ’s older son, Scott, worked with his dad during the summers in high school and college, but he chose another career path and lives in Madison with his family.
“It just wasn’t his cup of tea,” Cheryl says. “But it worked out very well for us in the long run. He went to UW-Stevens Point and got a degree in computers. He handles all our technology now, including managing the office computers and running the website.”
Russ’s brother, Rick, married into the Musson family and now he and his wife, Debbie, own and operate Concrete Products Inc. “We do quite a lot of business with them,” Russ says. “Sometimes I sit back and think: This is pretty nice.”
The Johnsons’ third child, Brooke, is a mother and works as the day manager of the Rhinelander Café and Pub in downtown Rhinelander. “She has that strong Johnson work ethic, too,” Russ says.
Cheryl recalls joining the family and being recruited into the business almost right away. “We met in high school and married young,” she says. “With the kids being small, it was hard, but I started helping Diane in the office one day a week, then two days, then more.”
Her help is something Russ will never take for granted. “She’s the front line, and she knows what she’s talking about,” he says. “It’s so important; she’s often the first one to talk to a new customer. We couldn’t do this without her.”
Cheryl says she’s not always stuck in the office, either. “I go out on deliveries sometimes, and they show me projects they’re working on,” she says. “I’ve learned things over the years, and that is a big help.”
Busy as they are now, with the phone ringing 35 to 40 times a day during the hectic summer months, according to Cheryl, business wasn’t always this good. “We went through some tough times,” she says, “but Russ is so passionate about this work. We worked hard to build up a reputation, and we’re grateful for our customers’ loyalty.”
Logging about 80 hours a week, Russ’s commitment to the business is complete. “You have to work this hard to make any business a success,” he says.
Cheryl credits the company’s use of technology for Russ’s added work load. “After he’s done in the field, he comes home and picks up the laptop computer to answer emails from customers,” she says. “Much of what we do here is talking to homeowners about what we’re doing and why. He’s always happy to answer customers’ questions.”
Paperwork is also time-consuming. “We rely on Curt to do a lot of the permit work and leg work,” says Russ. “We all use our strengths to keep things running, and it works. We’re like a well-oiled machine.”
While any family has conflict, Russ sees the long history of Dick Johnson Inc. as a training ground. “Because I worked with Dad all those years, it’s helped me to get along with Curt. We work very well together.
“Sometimes we all get together and talk about the past, about changes over the years, and everything we’ve been through. It’s easy to laugh about things now.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond and Living on the Lake magazines.