A Reputation For Quality Work Brings Success To Family-Owned Company
Mitchael Johnson first operated a dozer when he was 11 years old, following a family tradition that reaches back through three generations and over eight decades. “My grandfather worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), then went out on his own after World War II,” Johnson relates. “My dad was in the dozer business, shearing timber. And this is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
His grandfather founded Johnson Construction Co., headquartered in Savannah, Tennessee, in 1954, and his father joined the company in 1961. Johnson Construction has grown to be a very successful and highly regarded contractor in the Pickwick Lake area of southwest Tennessee.
“We worked with TVA on the Pickwick dam and reservoir,” reports Johnson, who was born in Savannah and has lived there his entire life. “We also worked extensively for many years as a sub-contractor for Dement Construction Company (a Jackson, TN-based highway and bridge constructor.)
“In the 1970s, after I starting working with my dad and granddad, we worked on a number of industrial sites,” Johnson adds. “We did some roadbuilding, as a sub-contractor, plus some airport work and even a golf course. And we did a lot of site cleaning work for the paper mill.”
The Packaging Corporation of America (PCA) containerboard mill in Counce, Tennessee is one of the area’s biggest industrial operations, and a major employer. It is PCA’s highest-volume mill, producing 1.087 million tons in 2015. The mill remains one of Johnson Construction’s most notable clients.
Business took a downturn for his family’s company in the 1980s, says Johnson. “Things were tough for about three years. We took on a number of jobs in Mississippi, and I did a lot of work for other contractors. Then things began to improve, and all the experience we had gained during those lean years was helpful to us.
Mitchael, who took over the running of the family company in 1992, says taking on the “less glamorous” jobs – jobs other companies didn’t want, helped the company to start growing and building a reputation for the quality of their work.
One good indicator of Johnson Construction’s growth is the expansion of its fleet. In 1992, Johnson says, the company had 10-12 pieces of equipment; today, that fleet includes 90 pieces, of all types, including 21 dozers, 22 track hoes, 11 articulated trucks, and other machines ranging from skid steer loaders to compactors to water trucks.
For many years, the company operated from a rustic-looking office located on property which is now full of both in-use and dissembled pieces of equipment, including some historical machines dating back as far as 1918. Mitchael, his wife Patricia, and daughter Jessica now run the operation from an adjacent new office – a spacious, pleasantly decorated building which reflects both the professionalism and the welcoming attitude of the company.
Today, according to Johnson, the company maintains a year-round work force of around 25 people, and that number can rise to 40 in peak seasons. “Several employees have been with us for over 25 years; we’re proud to have a lot of long-term employees, with a lot of experience between them. One man — who is actually retired but still works for us in the summer — started with us in 1964.
” To me, the key to being successful is keeping employees. You have to take care of them, and you can’t be greedy. You have to share the wealth.”
“These days we work to find the types of jobs that best fit our people, their experience, and our capabilities,” Johnson continues. “We’re fortunate in that now we primarily work within a 50-mile radius of Savannah, although in years past we have worked within a 150-mile radius, including jobs in Memphis and Nashville.
“Although we do many types of jobs, I guess I would say that we specialize in land or site grading and finish work. Recently we’ve been doing a lot of dirt work for PCA, including roads and parking lot maintenance.
Pickwick Lake, especially along its north shore near Counce, has become the site of numerous impressive developments of luxury residences and vacation homes, and Johnson Construction has done many jobs in those developments. Mitchael Johnson says, “In one challenging but enjoyable project, we did about 18 miles of road in one of the residential developments. Driveways, especially, on these lake lots can be a bit challenge, because of big drop-offs. But it was enjoyable to be out in the woods, viewing the scenery on the lake, and just watching the project come together.”
Another memorably challenging project, he reports, was at the Yellow Creek State Inland Port, on the lake front near Iuka, Mississippi. Johnson’s firm was given only 10 days to remove all the debris from a pit and compact 8,000 tons of limestone in place. Working day and night, they completed the job in six days.
Johnson Construction Co.’s relationship with Thompson Machinery extends backs more than six decades. “My grandfather started buying from Taylor Machinery (which became part of Thompson in 1988) from the time he started the company in 1954,” Johnson says. “I remember riding into Memphis on a Sunday afternoon to pick up parts from Taylor Machinery when I was about 8 years old!”
Additionally, he reports that he has old invoices showing purchases from Thompson’s predecessor company, Thompson & Green, in the late 1940s.
“We have enjoyed long working relationships with many Thompson personnel,” Johnson continues. “In the lean times, Thompson worked with us. They give us great parts availability, and probably most importantly, great technical support. I couldn’t ask to be treated any better.
“Between our new and used machines, we’ve probably bought 75 pieces of equipment from Taylor and Thompson since 1954. One of them is a Cat D7E tractor my granddad bought in 1966, and it’s still in use.”
Johnson’s latest machine from Thompson is a just-purchased Cat 308E2 CR mini excavator. He comments, “It fits some definite needs, and it’s very good for us. It can do big work, but it can get into very small spaces. Compact machines like this are a very big part of the picture these days.
“My philosophy is that if you’re a small contractor, you have to be able to be a good fit for any client need. You’ve got to provide a service, and you have to have quality, dependable equipment. And that’s something we can rely on Thompson to provide.”