Fourth in a five-part series about family businesses with deep roots in the area economy.
Sixty years ago G. Allan Johnson, like his brothers, decided there was good money to be made in moving dirt.
So Johnson, the son of a farmer and grandson of a Swedish immigrant, bought a Caterpillar bulldozer and scraper and started doing minor construction and soil conservation work – dams, dugouts and township roads – in the Harrold area.
Today his family can still be found moving earth around for farmers, but their client list has also expanded to include the departments of transportation for several different states, mining companies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
When his son, Gerald, got out of the Marine Corps in 1955, Johnson offered him half share in the business, which became the Allan Johnson and Son Construction Co.
Nine years later the company organized in Fort Pierre under the name A-G-E, when Gerald’s brother-in-law, Eldon, joined. The name was invented by company’s accountant and stands for the first names of the family members involved: Allan, Gerald, and Eldon.
According to Gerard Johnson, who took over the company from his father, the accountant chose the name because members of the extended family had already founded generic-sounding “Johnson Construction” companies and it was becoming increasingly difficult for the bookkeepers to remember which Johnson business they were dealing with.
The business may have began with the smaller soil conservation and construction work, but today has expanded into other, larger areas such as pre-cast concrete work for bridges and culverts, mine development, demolition, and heavy hauling.
Some of those large jobs included building overpasses on Interstate 29 for U.S. Highway 12 and state Highway 10. Or a stripping job for a coal mine in Wyoming, where A-G-E employees worked 24 hours a day, six days a week for five months, moving a million cubic yards a month.
Johnson said when he started he couldn’t have imagined doing that kind of large work, but the bigger jobs had come as the company grew more successful, he said.
And although it’s only been in business 60 years, A-G-E has already accomplished what a select few other businesses in the area have – employing four generations of the same family. Johnson’s son, Gary, joined the firm full-time in 1978 and now Gary’s has two sons who are also part of the business.
Johnson said he’s been told by financial advisors that his company is a rarity; very few business last beyond the second generation and an even smaller group will get to the third.
“I’m pretty proud that we’ve lasted that long, and that they (Gary and his sons) have an interest in doing this work,” Johnson said.
He’s also proud of an upward education trend in the family. Both grandsons and Gary are college graduates, while Johnson never completed college and his father never finished high school, he said.
“My degree is from the college of hard knocks,” Johnson said.
As for the future, Johnson is leaving that to Gary, calling him the “captain of the ship” who’ll chart the company’s course.
Gary said the company will continue forward just like it has – offering its services to the private sector, while still looking for jobs from public entities such as the state Department of Transportation.
“Government projects have to be done and have to be done by somebody,” he said.
Another major goal is provide jobs for people that want to stay in one place and don’t want to be job jumping all the time, he said. Some employees have been around for decades, one for more than 40 years.
While A-G-E currently employs 20 individuals, in the past has hired upward 100 people, depending on what individual projects called for. Gary said it’s those hires and their work ethic that have built the company into what it is.
“We can have all the machinery and all the jobs, but if we haven’t got the people we can’t be successful,” he said.