Mickman Brothers, Inc.

by John Steven Mickman, CEO/Founder
Mickman Brothers, Inc.

In early 1972, after graduation from the University of Minnesota, I hitchhiked to Kodiak, Alaska and began a career as a commercial fisherman. For ten years, I plied the frigid, bountiful waters of the North Pacific and Bering Seas to fish shrimp, snow crab, and king crab.

During the first couple of years I was offshore fishing nearly nine months of the year, away from my wife for weeks and, in the fall, months at a time. My wife Su and I had our first child, Heather, in 1974 and I had missed Heathers birth, her first steps and all the glorious moments in her young life. In 1975, after much soul-searching, I made the decision to quit fishing to do something else.

However, I was living on the island of Kodiak with no interaction with the outside world. Although I had earned a degree in business administration, I couldn’t afford to quit fishing to search for a career. When visiting my family in Minnesota over Christmas in 1974, I told my youngest brother Chris of my dilemma and he suggested we start a landscaping business. Because my goal had always been to own my own business, I agreed we should give this a try.

Chris and I bid on, and were awarded, just one project that spring — planting trees on a highway project. The job had a few problems, and we did okay, but we had just that one job. Late that spring, Su and I returned to Kodiak with our baby daughter Heather. That summer was a prosperous one fishing shrimp in the summer and the fall King Crab season was glorious. In the winter of 1975 – ‘76, we were having a prosperous snow crab season. That February, another Minnesota landscaping company that we had worked alongside of in Minnesota the previous spring, sold too much highway landscaping work and they didn’t have the workforce to perform. Chris and I took on two very profitable landscaping subcontracts from this other company, Gurtek & Ramberg, and we also sold enough work to sustain our families through the spring and the rest of the summer.

So started our company, Mickman Brothers, Inc.

But these were lean times for a seasonal Minnesota landscaping company. Due to the weather, there was no work from November through mid-April. We made a good living during the summer, but by spring, the previous season’s earnings were diminished. To make ends meet, each year until 1982, I returned to Alaska fish on the combination dragger/crabber, the Marcy J during the off-season. Think about that; there are few companies that could sustain themselves if they were, in essence, out of business with no income for over five months every year!

1976 was a dry year and I started an irrigation department to complement our blooming landscaping business. In 1977, two important things occurred: The first one was that Su and I purchased a little farmstead for our young family, which now included our new baby, Maegen, and we moved Mickman Brothers from our townhouse in Fridley to our little farmstead in Ham Lake. The second important thing was our dad moved to Mississippi to retire, and he sold his small Christmas wreath customer list and trailer to Chris and me, giving us a good foundation for our own wreath business. Chris and I knew all about this business from working in it from the time we were young boys, and from our first year, the wreath business was profitable.

And I was having a great time. To me, our little business was like playing Monopoly. Business is a strategy game, and I enjoyed playing the game immensely. My business training at the U of M helped immeasurably. My focus at the university was marketing/advertising and management, and it was fun making use of these skill sets. In the winter of 1977, I developed our logo which has stood the test of time and which we have trademarked.

Chris did a great job running the landscaping business, and I ran the irrigation and wreath businesses. We attracted many talented employees. Our community of customers liked doing business with us and without them, we would not have succeeded.

By 1983, I didn’t need to fish in Alaska any longer to support my family of four children. Su and I were happy, and I loved coming home each day to our beautiful children—Heather, Maegen, John Jr. and Mariah. We were all healthy and strong.

With the help of a talented staff and a lot of hard work, the company continued to thrive. By that time, we operated three different departments: Landscaping, irrigation and the wreath business. In 1985, we sold about 42,000 wreaths, and in the summer of 1986, I had an enlightened idea to run a very expensive ad in Scouting Magazine which was distributed nationally to over 80,000 Boy Scout leaders. I was confident we would sell many more wreaths, but our production capacity was strained at best. I needed a larger, highly seasonal work force.

At that time, some years after the Vietnam War had ended, St. Paul offered asylum to Hmong refugees from Laos, and a story in the newspaper described how the 20,000 Hmong people living in St. Paul couldn’t find enough jobs. After some amount of research, I connected with the Hmong community, and hired fifty-two Hmong people to make wreaths that fall. We doubled our wreath sales that year to 84,000 wreaths, all made by our marvelous Hmong workforce. Our Hmong employees continue to be an important part of our wreath business. The wreath decorating team was staffed by dozens of local high school students in the evening. These were long days for me. Work began at 7:00am until the high school kids clocked out at 9:00pm. I found that the production numbers increased significantly when I was managing these wild young kids, and I enjoyed working with them immensely.

The year 1986 was also the year that Chris and I purchased twenty-one acres of land with a small house on the corner of Highway 65 and Andover Blvd. in Ham Lake. In the spring of 1987, we moved from my small farmstead to our new location which was only two miles away.

Chris suggested we add a garden center business because of our excellent location, and I agreed this would be a good idea. However, after investing all our money in the property purchase, our resources were sadly diminished, and we didn’t have the borrowing base to finance a building. Not to be dissuaded, Chris came up with the idea to buy a caboose for $3,200 and move it to our new business location. Our total cash outlay was $5,000. We designed and built an elaborate decking and pergola concept to wrap around the caboose and this worked. The cash register was in the caboose and the nursery stock we offered for sale was outside by the highway. Our new garden center was a hit in the community! Our Grand Opening was on Mothers Day weekend in May of 1987 with great fanfare. Our gross sales on that Saturday alone were $5,150 – a fortune for us in those days. Chris and I were delighted by the support of our local community of customers. This old caboose is still on display in the garden center.

Unfortunately, Su and I split up in the early 1990’s. Of all the decisions of my life, this was the most difficult. From the time I was a boy, I had worked long and hard and that was where most of my focus was. Although they all worked in the business when they were young kids, only Heather, son John and Mariah worked at Mickman Brothers as adults. Unfortunately, the pace and style of our company didn’t suit the girls, and they successfully struck out on their own. My son John has dedicated his career to our family business and works closely with me managing the wreath business. My broken marriage is the biggest failure of my life.

Over the next few years, we added a metal building and attached two plastic, hoop greenhouses to it for making wreaths. This was quite primitive, but it worked okay. The company continued to grow in all ways, and we added two more plastic greenhouses over the years to produce more wreaths. By the mid-1990s, we were making and selling over 300,000 wreaths and our landscaping, garden center and irrigation businesses continued to grow. Our office was in the little house; Chris’s office was in one bedroom, mine was in the other. The living room was the accounting office, and the kitchen was the overflow area.

By the late 1990s, our facility was overflowing and inefficient in every way. In 2000, we invested in a large expansion which included a garden center building, a beautiful glass greenhouse, and an office/warehouse, all of which were connected. The design was perfect for our operation and allowed for more growth. That year, we sold 550,000 wreaths in forty-nine states to over 2,000 nonprofit organizations such as boy scouts, schools, and churches.

In 2001, two disasters occurred. The first one was that I was in a near fatal motorcycle accident in early August which left me in a wheelchair throughout wreath season and on crutches for the next three years. The second occurred a month later on September 11th  when terrorists took down the World Trade Center in New York. Much of the entire country shut down for nearly a month, just when we had traditionally begun registering wreath customers for the season. Wreath sales plummeted to only 400,000 wreaths and we were saddled with a $2,000,000 mortgage on the new buildings. Profits and cash flow took a major dive, and in 2002, our bank at the time declined to loan the money we needed to finance the wreath business.

Fortunately, Village Bank offered a line of credit to us using pinecones and wreaths as collateral. If Village Bank had not come through for us, we might have gone out of business. It was that bad. I was still on crutches, working as hard as I could, but this was the most difficult year of my life. Wreath sales recovered that year of 2002, and our other businesses were doing well. We had weathered the storm. In 2009, I joined the Board of Directors at Village Bank.

By the early 2000’s, Chris and I had an excellent staff including my new wife Wendy, our CFO, and Jeff Sutter who was managing our irrigation business. Wendy was invaluable to the company and managed our accounting department admirably. The four of us were a great team and we had a dedicated staff of managers for our construction crews, the garden center, and the wreath business. We continued to grow and become more profitable.

Until the Great Recession of 2008–2011.

The bad news was that our green industry businesses experienced far fewer sales and profitability. The good news was that the wreath business thrived. The reason? Most of our customers were youth-based nonprofit organizations and these groups needed to earn money to finance their activities. For four years in a row, beginning in 2009, wreath sales increased up to 10 percent per year which resulted in better overall profits than ever before for the company at large.

Over all these years I was the president, CEO, marketing manager and hands-on managed the wreath business. Something had to give. I was at my capacity. In 2018, we took three big steps. The first was that we promoted Jeff Sutter to the position of president. Jeff had always been a fast learner and dedicated employee. Our employees were thrilled with Jeff’s promotion, and the company continued to thrive.

The second was that brother Chris wanted to ‘semi-retire’ and I purchased his Mickman Brothers stock. Chris is invaluable to the company and continues in his role working the last six months of the year in the wreath business.

The third big step was that we built a beautiful new office building – The Design Studio, which was connected to the rest of our campus. The first floor of this building houses three of our green industry businesses: Landscaping, irrigation, and our landscape maintenance business. The second floor houses our burgeoning Online Christmas Wreath Department which sells Holiday Evergreens through our fundraising website, GiftItForward.com and to corporations via CorporateGiftWreaths.com. All these products are delivered individually via FedEx to customers in forty-eight states. We desperately needed this new office building, and it was well-received by our employees and our community of customers and clients.

As of this writing in 2022, the small landscaping company brother Chris and I founded in 1975, a year in which gross sales were $9,000, has grown to become one of the industry leaders in the Twin Cities landscaping marketplace and leaders in the national Christmas wreath industry.

It is rewarding to me that one of the strongholds of Mickman Brothers, the wreath business, is one in which I have worked since a young boy for my Gramma and my dad. I wish they were still alive to see how the Mickman family business has grown.

One response to “Mickman Brothers, Inc.”

  1. Barbara J Asmussen says:

    Quite a legacy Mickman`s has had. Glad you are still around and succeeding. Love you garden center!!!

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