Maynard Johnson never shied from hard work. He just wanted to do it in business rather than on a farm.
That's why, when he came across a large swath of undeveloped land in what then was the village of Lakeville in 1966, he envisioned industrial buildings, jobs and a mile-long airstrip there instead of livestock and crops.
The result of that vision, which Johnson pursued with fellow executives of the former Bloomington-based Hitchcock Industries, was Airlake Industrial Park. Decades later, the park, home to as many as 200 companies and an estimated 4,500 employees, continues to serve as an engine of economic growth in the south metro.
The 1,500-acre park, one of the state's largest contiguous industrial parks, has attracted companies ranging from start-ups to large corporations and has driven commercial and residential development in what now is a city with nearly 60,000 people.
"It makes me feel good," Johnson, 93, said. "You could see opportunities happening there, right in front of my eyes, that I had never seen before. It's good to share that — but it's good to make money, too."
The birth of Airlake Industrial Park, Johnson's love of business dealings, and his willingness to help others build companies or careers are central subjects of "Maynard's Memories," a new book written by Johnson's grandson, Twin Cities public relations veteran Brant Skogrand.
Skogrand began taping conversations with Johnson after his 92nd birthday, "to learn more about who he was besides just my grandpa."
"I knew that in some respects he was a big deal with Lakeville, Hitchcock Industries and Airlake Industrial Park," Skogrand said. "But once I dug in and started to talk to him in more detail about it and his associates at the time, I realized what an impact he's had, particularly on Lakeville. Maybe it's that Norwegian heritage, but in some respects he's humble about his accomplishments."
In addition to serving as general manager of Airlake Industrial Park, Johnson helped start Panorama of Progress, or Pan-O-Prog, Lakeville's weeklong summer festival. He was the festival grand marshal in 1983. Johnson also worked with the group that founded the Lakeville Chamber of Commerce, served as its president and was named its Business Person of the Year in 1997.
As Skogrand reflected on the recordings he made with his grandfather, he identified 15 "life lessons" that contributed to Johnson's success, insights that Skogrand said he believed "would improve anyone's life." Skogrand rounded out the lessons with relevant anecdotes from his grandfather's life, producing a book that is available on Amazon.com and that the Minnesota, Dakota County and Lakeville historical societies have accepted into their collections.
The lessons include "Work hard and step up to leadership" and "Take the time to enjoy life." The "Go into business instead of farming" lesson was reinforced for Johnson when his father's illness forced Johnson to leave college for a year to run the family farm in Dawson, in western Minnesota. After serving in the Navy in World War II, Johnson worked at Hitchcock Industries from 1946 until his retirement 25 years ago. In the early years of his career he took night classes at the University of Minnesota to complete a business administration degree.
Among those Johnson hired at Hitchcock Industries was Jack Matasosky, whose Appro Development has led projects at Airlake Industrial Park since Hitchcock sold the land in the 1980s. On some occasions, Matasosky said, Johnson used his own money to finance buildings to help make companies "comfortable enough to ultimately own and invest in what was a cornfield."
"Maynard put his money where his mouth was and basically built many of the buildings and leased them until [companies] were comfortable that it was the right thing to do and then they'd buy their buildings from him," Matasosky said.
The park is unusual in that it was privately developed and offers both a railroad connection and Airlake Airport, which the Metropolitan Airports Commission now owns, said David Olson, Lakeville's community and economic development director.
"Having Airlake Industrial Park has been an asset to the city," Olson said. "The availability of land for companies looking to locate in Lakeville, having that industrial park has been a benefit to the city of Lakeville for decades."
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org