By Amy Pearson
On the first day of school every year back in the day, Johnson Madison Lumber Company scheduled deliveries for a late start so that dads could see their kids off. The company has always adhered to a long-standing decision to be closed on the weekends and holidays so employees can spend time with their families.
After thirty-eight years with the company, General Manager Joel Brueland tells me he gets a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach when a customer gets upset. He notes, “The customers become basically your friends; it’s not just a work thing, it’s a friendship thing.”
I recently met with GM Brueland and Sales Manager Chris Munsterteiger to talk about JM’s 100th Year Anniversary. While I expected to hear descriptions of the latest advances in building materials, roofing techniques, and superior cabinetry installation methods, I sure heard a lot about people.
When asked about their secret to success to 100 years in business, Brueland and Munsterteiger tend to agree that the answer is community.
William Madison Sr. and Arthur E. Johnson started JM Lumber in a house on 9th Street North in 1923. History suggests that the company eventually helped supply the lumber, doors, nails, hammers, and paintbrushes that built much of Great Falls.
Brueland and Munsterteiger reminisce with me about the good ole days when growth was extreme and workdays were unpredictable. “The workers were hungry and wanted to see the business succeed,” Brueland says. “Our motto was, ‘we’ll deliver ‘til we’re done’.”
In 1990, the company moved to its current location at 815 10th Street North, one block away from its original home. They sell lumber and composites, engineered wood, roofing and siding, insulation and drywall, windows and doors, kitchens, baths, paints and stains, hardware, electrical and plumbing products, tools, farm and yard materials, and probably other things too. They have a fleet of twenty-eight construction vehicles, and their own rail site on the east end of town.
We conduct our interview in a stunning office suite adjacent to the kitchen and bath showroom area. Brueland gives me a tour of some of the loveliest, most hi-tech kitchen set-ups I have ever seen. He talks about the importance of creativity and taking risks. They mention talented employees who happened to show up during hiring freezes but got hired on anyway and now lead the charge in sales.
JM Lumber employs approximately forty people now and up to fifty when summer comes, including two 4th and 5th generation descendants from the original family.
“I guess we’re five generations deep,” Brueland says. “And while there were twenty-one lumberyards in Great Falls when the second generation took over, now there are four.”
So how has Johnson Madison managed to stay in it all these years?
Munsterteiger believes it is the family-oriented nature of the atmosphere tracing all the way back to the company’s origins, but most evident to him when his desk sat next to Larry Madison’s in the office.
“They took care of you,” he says. “And even today, if someone in the company is having a hard time, people step up.”
They relay stories of co-workers showing up to help with garage or housing projects, to lend an ear when someone needs a listener, or even to demonstrate support for an employee’s sobriety.
I mentioned that I managed to get lost in the lumberyard on my way to the interview, and that when I asked the guy with the orange vest sweeping out a shop nearby for directions, he walked me all the way to the front door into the main register area, and then proceeded to go track down Brueland.
While I waited, at least three other employees asked me if I needed help.
“They did the right thing,” Brueland remarks.
“It’s a relationship,” Munsterteiger adds.
They describe their sales process as a journey from start to finish. Whomever a customer encounters first in the store is the employee who will be with him or her through the end of the transaction. They don’t want customers to get lost in the shuffle, and they believe that the relational component of their work is central to the art of maintaining exceptional customer service.
“We used to joke that it was like Cheers in the lumberyard,” Brueland remarks. “You want to come somewhere where everybody knows your name.”
I believe them because by the time I left the building, I felt as though I had known Brueland and Munsterteiger at least a decade. I feel confident that I’ll be back myself for any home building supplies I might need in the future.
Johnson Madison Lumber Company wants to thank the Great Falls Community and surrounding 100-mile radius of customers for the last 100 years of business. A big shout of thanks goes out to former owners Bill and Larry Madison, as well as to the irreplaceable long-time employees who invested thirty to forty years of their lives with the company.
As part of their thanks to the community, JM Lumber will be celebrating 100 years in various ways over the course of the year. Things kick off at the Home and Garden Show at the beginning of April. In-store promos will be popping up monthly for sales on items such as cabinets, windows, decking, railing, and even spontaneous blowouts. A contractor and employee appreciation golf tournament is scheduled for June at Anaconda Hills in addition to a major presence in the Great Falls 4th of July parade.
In true Johnson Madison Lumber style, there is also likely to be a food drive at the store where folks can earn discounts for bringing in cans of food to donate. The company may also pick a Saturday for employees to assist in the building of a self-help home for someone in need in the community. And they are potentially looking for a few miles of highway to clean up.
For the most recent updates on events and happenings, see the Johnson Madison Lumber Co Facebook page or call (406) 771-0222.