Great Northwest, Inc. ‘Success is respect’
Great Northwest President and CEO John Minder with his golden retriever, Jake, who he calls “The Official Ambassador of Great Northwest, Inc.”
Great Northwest, Inc.’s President and CEO John Minder started his first business in the fourth grade. “My father had six or seven greyhounds, and he got me a contract for all their bedding,” he explains.
The bedding was made of shredded paper, so he bought a paper shredder and an old cast iron straw baler. He says one of the delivery boys of the local paper would drop off excess copies in the morning, and he’d spend the day shredding and baling paper. “I was making so much money,” he says. “We didn’t have paper money in Montana back then, it was all silver dollars. I was the most popular kid in twenty blocks, my pockets just full of silver dollars,” he laughs.
In the fifth grade he started playing competitive sports, and spending the summer months indoors “trapped in that garage” just wasn’t working. “My aunt gave me a set of used golf clubs, and the municipal course was maybe six blocks away from where I lived, so I hired two kids and taught them how to do it and was golfing for six weeks,” he says. Minder’s early entrepreneurial endeavor ended abruptly: “One day I was on the green putting and I felt this big paw on my shoulder, and it was my dad. ‘I didn’t get you this job so you could be some entrepreneur, I got it so you could learn how to work,’ and he yanked the contract from me.” Minder says.
Minder didn’t really need that job to learn how to work, as he’d grown up on a ranch, but it did give him a taste for leading a company. “I just never have liked working for anyone else,” Minder laughs.
But he has been working hard ever since. He came to Alaska in 1974 and brought with him $509, a 1952 Chevy Pickup, and a D21 Martin guitar, “all of which I still have, except for the $509. I have a couple more dollars,” he says. It was in 1975 that he and a friend of his brother’s started a small landscaping business with three or four employees. They did landscaping for Fred Meyer when it came into Fairbanks. Shortly thereafter the company began working as a subcontractor on projects for parks and recreation: “We put the topsoil [which Great Northwest manufactured] down and seeded it, but then I would watch [the other work] and say, if we’re going to do parks, we should buy some equipment and be able to do the planting, the grubbing, the excavation, all of it. And so I went into huge debt and bought all this heavy equipment and we did, we started building all the parks from scratch,” Minder says.
In 1985 when oil prices fell out, the first projects to lose funding were parks and recreation, “and I had accumulated all this debt,” Minder says. To keep the equipment busy and to pay for it, he started another company called Metro General, which did city utility and street work. That was profitable until the city sold the utilities to a private firm, at which point Minder bought out the partner he’d had in the business.
Fortunately, that was about the time that many of the “big box stores” came into Fairbanks, and Minder approached them to do all of the necessary site work: excavation, gravel, paving, everything. Minder says Great Northwest did site work for about 80 percent of the large box stores in Fairbanks: both Fred Meyers, the Walmart, Sam’s Club, Kmart, etc. “At that time I would subcontract out the pavement because I didn’t have the paving or asphalt plant.”
From there the company moved on to road work, “including the dirt work and all of the civil; everything except the paving,” Minder says. It was when the road work started that Minder brought in Randy Brand a new estimator, a job Minder had been performing himself. “I did accounting, estimating, every department there was. But estimating takes so much time, so I hired him and he’s really sharp.” Minder also brought Brand in as a partner, and the company was split three ways with Minder owning 52 percent and each of the other partners at 24 percent.
“Then we started doing a lot of military work, and we started a lot of site work for another utility, and my bonding kept growing and growing so we took on a couple of highway projects, smaller ones at first, maybe $2 million to $8 million, and gradually built up,” Minder says. In 1998 Great Northwest bid on an $8 million job on the Dalton Highway that turned into a $30 million project: “That kind of put us on the map,” he says. In time Great Northwest purchased an asphalt plant, as it was difficult to bid competitively on jobs without one. In 2001 Minder brought in Anton Johansen, a former Northern Region of Alaska Department of Transportation director. Minder says that Johansen, with his experience in the Department of Transportation, was a huge asset to the company as it transitioned into performing highway work. In 2009 Great Northwest bought out Minder’s original partner.
Great Northwest Today
The company now owns two asphalt plants in addition the topsoil plant that Great Northwest still operates. “I keep the landscaping division because it’s how I got started. It’s maybe 1 percent of our volume. There’s no money in the topsoil. I closed it two years ago because we were losing money [on it], and I got so many calls,” Minder laughs. “I opened it back up last year. Its a community service, and it reminds me of where I came from.”
Great Northwest had approximately $30,000 in revenue its first year and reports gross revenue of $60.8 million in 2015. A bare handful of employees has grown into 220 to 240 employees during the construction season and approximately 25 year-round employees. Building a company, Minder says, “is a lot about relationships. Relationships are so important. Trust has to go both ways, and the whole company is built on pride, honor, and quality.”
One of the relationships Minder values is with First National Bank Alaska, another Top 49er. He says, “I’ve been banking with the first National in Fairbanks for thirty-eight years. My first loan was for $5,000, and I was trying to use an old beater pickup for collateral. I was meeting with a young banker and Dan Cuddy came storming through. The kid said, ‘Mr. Cuddy, this guy wants to borrow about $5,000 on an old beat up truck; what do you think?’ And Cuddy looked at me and said, ‘Are you going to pay me back?’ I said ‘yes.’ ‘Well then give him a loan.”
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‘Success is Respect’
Minder lists eleven things a construction company needs to be successful: a good reputation; strength, honor, and integrity; strong leadership; employee appreciation; an understanding of resources and risk; a good client base and customer relationships; good accounting and cost control; communication and trust with financial institutions and security/bonding companies; good estimating; accurately, timely, and honest projections; and safety, safety, safety.
He says, “I have a little bit of a temper, not much, but when I see something unsafe I go ballistic—not because they violated a regulation, but because I care about what happens to my employees.” Great Northwest has an excellent safety record, with only one lost workday accident in the past five years, which accounts for more than 1.2 million man-hours.
Minder says, “Great Northwest’s success is mainly due to its employees, and in no uncertain terms would Great Northwest be where it is today without those employees. We have extremely bright and self-motivated people. We are a blue collar company work wise with a white collar mentality. There is no separation between management and labor. When something needs to be done everyone jumps in and takes care of it.”
He says his employee turnover rate is incredibly low, and if an employee works for him for two years, they’re generally an employee for life. “I take really good care of my employees, I always have. Success is not money—that’s a by-product to me. To me success is respect.”
Minder says the company’s logo, a pair of work boots, is a direct representation of that mentality. He relates how the logo was developed: “Those are actually a pair of my work boots from years ago after I had finished a long day of work in Valdez. I had a young landscape architect, who was quite a talented artist, working and living with me in a small apartment. … He was working on a new logo, and what he was coming up with I didn’t like. I had come back to the apartment, kicked off my boots on the rug, and fell asleep on the couch. I woke up the next morning, and he had etched my work boots that were kicked off the night before, and I went in and told him that the boots were exactly what I was looking for to represent the principles of Great Northwest going forward: hard work, courage, pride, and determination.”
Minder says, “I’ve never gained anything without really hard work and adversity. I’ve been knocked down and knocked down.” He says he learned the beginnings of how to be a leader when he played sports as a youth. “You have to put yourself aside and say hey, what’s best for the team? And then you have to be really humble.”
He tells of one winter when he scraped by on a dollar a day, living in the shop with no heat during fifty-below weather while he took classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in accounting, contract law, and civil engineering estimating. “I was paying really close attention to that because we were way underwater,” he says.
Minder is still involved in the day to day goings on, but he says it’s mostly to check on things. Employees need to be very self-motivated to work at Great Northwest, he says, and it’s not his style to micro manage. “Believe me, I do not know how to build a highway,” he laughs. “But my employees love me, and they get upset when I don’t come out on a job.” He continues, “Once and a while they will let me on a compactor,” he laughs.