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Posted: February 01, 2011

Delivering for four generations

Denver's Johnson Storage & Moving started with horse-drawn wagons

Mike Taylor

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William Johnson and his family were enjoying a mid-day meal on New Year's Day, 1900, when they heard a strange noise outside on Second Avenue and Broadway. Hustling down from their second-story residence, William and his wife, his in-laws and their children dashed downstairs and outside to the street. The source of the commotion: two steam-powered automobiles, rumbling south down Broadway.

"They all thought it was the neatest thing they'd ever seen," Mark Johnson says. "All except my great-grandfather. He was a blacksmith and wagon builder. It was two of his customers going by, and he knew his way of making a living was coming to an end."

William Johnson spent a pensive afternoon taking into account his abilities and his assets. He had the blacksmith shop on the first floor; he had horses; he knew how to build wagons. That evening he announced to the family he was launching a new business: a moving business, carrying baggage to and from Union Station. That was the beginning of Johnson Storage & Moving Co., a fourth-generation family business now owned and operated by brothers Mark and Jim Johnson.

At 111 years old, Johnson Storage & Moving is the oldest firm on the ColoradoBiz Top 50 Family Owned Companies list and one of the largest, with 350 employees and annual revenues of about $30 million. The family's impact on the moving industry transcends Johnson Moving & Storage, now headquartered in Centennial just off Arapahoe Road and Jordan Road. William Johnson also co-founded Allied Van Lines in 1928, and his sons - a great uncle and a grandfather of Mark and Jim - co-founded United Van Lines in 1947.

 William Johnson's business initially consisted of three wagons that mostly carried steamer trunks to and from Denver's Union Station. Long-distance moves required crating everything in the customer's house, taking it by wagon to the rail station and loading it, and sending a telegraph to the destination alerting a mover on the other end.

Today, Mark says, "We move things our ancestors never would have envisioned, much less tried to put on to a van or a wagon. Even in terms of certain mattresses that require special handling; if they're put on their side vs. kept flat, they're ruined. The fragile nature of plasma televisions. Items like that we have to respond to on a daily basis. And, of course, moving high-tech robotics, computer gear, imaging equipment, medical and dental equipment, those types of things."

But the Johnson brothers agree that the most significant change in recent decades has been deregulation of the moving industry - the Motor Carrier Act and the Household Goods Transportation Act. Both were enacted in 1980 and effectively ended 45 years of rate control.

"We were a public utility as an industry 30 years ago," says Mark Johnson, 54. "They deregulated us so we can now set our own pricing and tailor our services and pricing to much closer to what the consumer needs than would have been allowed 30 years ago."

The other effect of deregulation: "When I got into the business in 1979 there were probably 25 movers in the city of Denver," Mark says. "I think there are 120 to 150 that are in the industry in varying degrees now."

Few businesses last beyond one generation, let alone endure to a fourth. The Johnson brothers point to the first generational transfer of the business - from their great-grandfather down to their grandfather and great uncle - as an illustration of what has enabled the business to endure.

"The deal had been cut right before the Great Depression set in, and it became an unsustainable deal," Mark says. "They simply couldn't generate the cash to pay off their parents. My great-granddad had died, and my great-grandmother had actually moved from a house to an apartment. She went to her boys and said, ‘I don't want any more money. I simply won't add to your burden.' That attitude, I think, has greatly facilitated the transition. We had aunts and cousins involved in the business who had a very similar attitude. It was an attitude of family heritage, a desire to see it go forth."

Jim Johnson, 50, says that heritage becomes an ally in difficult times. "When you have momentary challenges, whether they be ethical or financial, you have that history to draw upon," he says. "And the history of not just our family but the great people who have worked here and are proud to work here. It's not just about us."

Sometimes that longstanding history and reputation pays off in unexpected ways. The Johnson brothers cite a call they got in the mid-1980s from a man looking for a mover. The caller's father had hired the Johnsons' grandfather and great uncle - "two honest college boys" - for a move to Evergreen in the 1920s. Before air conditioning came along, it was common for well-to-do families to spend summers in places like Evergreen, out of the summer heat.

The two trucks that were supposed to transport the household goods to Evergreen never made it. The Johnsons did arrive with the goods a day and a half late - not in trucks but in wagons pulled by a team of horses.

"My grandfather and great uncle had started up Turkey Creek Canyon, and the trucks just couldn't do it," Jim Johnson says. "They had to go all the way back to Denver, unload everything and load it back up in wagons and use the horses to get them to Evergreen."

Apparently this made an impression on that customer's son. "Sure enough, you guys delivered," he said, "so we'll use you again." So, says Mark, laughing, "Sixty years later we got a second move out of it."

The firm's 111-year heritage through four generations leads to a predictable question for Jim, who has four children, and Mark, who has one: Will the business extend to a fifth generation?

"That remains to be seen," Mark says. "None of us was ever drafted. It would be ill-advised, I think, for either Jim or I to draft our children. Obviously it would be neat to see that happen, but that's a choice our children would have to make."
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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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