Thursday, July 22, 2010

Letter from Minnesota DNR

The following is a letter we received from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in May, 2009

Dear John and Chris:

Thank you for the generous gift you made to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to help fund tree planting projects on state lands. Your gift will go a long way toward ensuring that healthy forests are available for Minnesota's future generations.

The $8,486.30 you designated for the DNR's Deer River Forestry area will enable 35,795 red and white pine seedlings to be planted on state land on two sites in Itasca County. Each site will be "marked" with a sign that identifies how a gift from Mickman Brothers Inc. made possible the planting of this future forest.

Your gift to the DNR is just one more thing to add to a long list of conservation efforts you have accomplished over the years, including helping to establish the Balsam Bough Partnership. I not only thank you for this recent gift to the DNR, but also for your recognition that Minnesota's forest resource is renewable if it is nurtured, protected, and wisely used in the years ahead.


Dave Epperly, Director
Division of Forestry

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Where Balsam Tree Boughs Become Wreaths

It might seem a landscape, irrigation and garden center makes its money in the summer. But about half of a Ham Lake company's $11 million annual sales is from its holiday wreath division.

Originally published December 20, 2006

By Sarah Moran, Staff Writer, Star Tribune

More than half a million of the country's Christmas wreaths this year come from Ham Lake.

About 4 million pounds of balsam fir and pine boughs, mostly from Minnesota, flooded Mickman Brothers landscaping and garden center in October.

That's a big batch of boughs, but don't worry: There will be another crop next year. As part of the company's focus on conservation, almost all the bundles are balsam fir, which keeps growing after branches are harvested.

After the branches descend upon the landscape business, about 100 employees, 250 temporary workers and 100 families working at their homes in northern Minnesota turn the boughs into beautiful wreaths.

When they're finished, those wreaths end up in the hands of 3,000 fundraising groups a year, from an aquatic booster club in California to a Boy Scout Troop in Pennsylvania.

Since the wreath operation started at Mickman Bros. in 1977, those organizations have earned more than $40 million in profits to fund their activities, said John Mickman, president of Mickman Brothers.

And, of course, the company has benefited - about half of Mickman Brothers' $11 million annual gross sales is from its wreath division.

Wreath manufacturing is about a $30 million industry in Minnesota. But without conservation efforts, the industry could have gone the way of the overharvested and now rare king crab in the Bering Sea, Mickman said.

In the early 1980s, Mickman and other leaders in the business went to the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with their concerns about forest regeneration in Minnesota.

There are two types of evergreen trees: pine and fir. Pine trees have buds on the tips of their branches. If those tips are cut off, there is no more growth. Fir trees, however, grow buds on the tips and along the stems. So cutting just the end of those trees means the tree can continue to grow and be harvested in another three to five years.

A group called the Balsam Bough Partnership formed in the late 1980s. It included wreath manufacturers, bough buyers, harvesters, land owners, the U.S. Forest Service, the state DNR, Indian reservations and counties.

The group went to the Legislature and got some changes starting in the early 1990s. Balsam bough buyers, who usually pay harvesters for their boughs and then sell them to companies such as Mickman Brothers, now need annual licenses. They are regularly inspected to make sure they're accepting only boughs that were properly harvested.

Harvesters had always been required to have permits, but the new laws required harvesters to show written permission from property owners to the buyers.

"There's a number of important reasons [to conserve] from a perspective outside the wreath industry because much of the forest land that the boughs are harvested off is public land," Mickman said. "If we have a big impact on the forest, it makes it less valuable for other users, and eventually we won't be able to harvest boughs there anymore.


  • 4 million pounds of balsam fir and pine are used each year to make wreaths.
  • More than 500,000 wreaths are sold every Christmas season.
  • 49 states receive wreaths from the company.
  • 95 percent of wreath sales are to fundraising organizations.
  • $40 million has been raised by fundraising groups since Mickman Brothers started the wreath division in 1977.

Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Garden Center is Always Blooming With New Ideas

Mickman Brothers Inc. in Ham Lake has expanded services this year, highlighting its owners' tuned-in timing.

Originally published April 26, 2006

By Sarah McCann, Staff Writer, Star Tribune

A time to plant,
a time to reap,
a time to innovate and expand business.

Chris and John Mickman of Mickman Brothers Inc. nailed that pattern once again this year.

The brothers grew up helping with the family Christmas wreath business in the 1960s, started their own landscaping and irrigation business in 1975 and took charge of the wreath operation soon after.

Mickman Brothers produces about half a million wreaths a year. If a Cub Scout has ever knocked on your door in the winter months, you probably know Mickman wreaths.

Then they added a Garden Center with trees, flowers, pots and tools at their 21-acre property in Ham Lake.

Last year's expansion included a partnership with Hedberg Hardscape Center, which offers materials and services for retaining walls, water features and patios at the Mickman Brothers' site.

This year's growth area is aimed at women, who make up 80 percent of Garden Center customers. New this season is an expanded home decor section in the center, and it's all arranged in a female-friendly atmosphere.

The idea came about after visitors from the American Nursery and Landscape Association noted that men were the decisionmakers for the Garden Center while mostly women were using it. Advice taken.

The Mickmans asked Diane Lee, who grew up across the street from their family and is the former owner of the Round Barn antique and home decorating store in Andover, to head up the effort.

Lee worked on redecorating and selecting new items. "Women really want to get a warm, fun feeling when they're shopping and more of an experience," she said.

The result? Sales are up 40 percent this season.

Leslie LaBonne, who has shopped at Mickman Brothers for about 10 years, is one contributor. "I was amazed when I came in this year and saw how they expanded it. I like that a lot," she said. "They've really grown. They've just added and added and added."

The Mickmans' open ears to feedback, innovative ideas and calculated responses are exactly what keeps the business strong, employees say. In 2005 the business recorded $11 million in gross sales.

Bob Fitch, executive director of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, said, "Both John and Chris are experts at new ideas, creative ideas and the ability to implement those ideas."

John gives some credit to their downtime in winter months.

"I take that time to do a thorough evaluation of our past year's operation and search for ways to enhance the good things and look for ways to deal with the issues we had," he said.

That could mean major business decisions. Or adding classes that now run every Wednesday and Saturday on topics such as growing and cooking with herbs or decorating a beautiful table for wedding showers or July 4th. Or purchases such as the cardboard compactor machine that breaks down loads of cardboard boxes that become profitable when sold for recycling.

"I'm always looking for ways to make things more efficient and easier," John said.

Conservation is a huge part of that for the company, Chris said.

"Our father was a real big role model for us," he said. "He always told us we should be like the Boy Scouts and always leave a place - for instance a campsite - better than when we first got there.

So Mickman Brothers stocks shelves with cutting-edge technology like the new solar landscaping lights that store enough energy to shine throughout the night. The brothers spread the word on the most forest-friendly way to harvest balsam boughs for wreaths. John initiated and garnered support for legislation requiring lawn sprinkler systems to have rain sensors that stop watering during or just after rain. That became state law in 2003.

People who work with the two say they have a passion for conservation, a balance between reflection and action, and enthusiasm best described by John himself.

"They're going to bury me here. This is my hobby," he said. "I like spending Saturdays in May here - I'm not going to be at my house doing my garden; I'm going to be here talking to customers about their gardens."

Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Business Honor Goes to Wreath Makers

Originally published March 19, 2003

By Jim Buchta, Staff Writer, Star Tribune

John and Chris Mickman transformed the wreath-making talents of their Norwegian grandmother into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

In recognition of the brothers' accomplishment, they were named small business people of the year by the Minnesota office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Grandma Mickman made her first wreath in 1934, but her son, John and Chris' father, snuck off with it and sold it to buy her a Christmas present.

Wreath profits have been buying Mickman gifts ever since. The Mickmans are one of the largest wreath manufacturers in the country.

The Mickman brothers also run a Ham Lake garden center, landscaping business, golf driving range and an irrigation business.

Other Minnesota SBA winners are Gae Veit, Ron Wacks, Jan Jordet, Robert Heck, Patricia Mack and Mary Patricia Riebe.

Expanding Landscapes - Brothers' Diverse Business Sprouts Sales

Originally published June 30, 2002

By Dick Youngblood Staff Writer, Star Tribune

With $100 in his pocket, John S. Mickman hitchhiked to Alaska after his graduation from the University of Minnesota in 1972 and wound up laboring on a shrimp boat operating out of Kodiak Island.

Think of him as the adventurous member of the family.

John's younger brother, Chris, remained behind to study forestry and horticulture at the university.

Call him "the idea guy".

There's a reason I've come up with these labels. It seems the Alaska adventure palled a bit after John married and he found himself at sea for months at a time. That meant he missed the birth of one of his children, as well as the first times she walked and talked.

"So I was telling Chris on a vacation back home that I had to find something else to do," John said. That's when the idea guy came up with a concept that grew into a multifaceted Ham Lake enterprise called Mickman Brothers Inc.

"Why don't we start a landscaping business?" Chris suggested. That was 1975, the beginning of a business partnership that yielded $8.4 million in revenue last year.

More to the point of today's seminar, it's a partnership that has exploited the Mickmans' complementary skills and their eye for opportunity to give new meaning to the notion of diversification. Consider:

  • Shortly after starting the landscaping business in the basement of their mother's Fridley home, the Mickmans began hearing requests from customers for sprinkler services. And so the irrigation division was born in 1977.

"We thought from the beginning that the more diversified we could get, the better we could react to changes in the economy and the weather," said John, 51.

Sales: $800,000 for landscaping, $1.2 million for irrigation in fiscal 2002 ended Jan. 31.

  • On a 21-acre site along Hwy. 65 in Ham Lake, the Mickmans began storing the shrubs and trees used for landscaping. Whereupon, passersby streamed in to try and buy the greenery. Voila! The Mickman Brothers Garden Center opened in 1987 with an old Soo Line caboose as the office.

Why a caboose? "It was an inexpensive way to get into a highly seasonal business," said Chris, 45.

Sales: $1.2 million in 2002.

  • Shortly after the garden center opened, the Mickmans got to talking about how to use 10 acres of peat land on the property that were overgrown, unsightly and inappropriate for building.

"Well, it's about the right size for a golf driving range," Chris mused. The result: a range with 45 tees and an instructor armed with video equipment to help analyze wayward swings.

Sales: Two wet springs in a row trimmed sales to about $100,000, down from an earlier peak of $125,000.

If you've been counting, you've figured out that total sales of these enterprises - $3.3 million - are way less than half the Mickman Brothers total cited earlier. That's because the largest contributor to the revenue stream is a business the brothers did not start - although they certainly expanded it from a local into a nationwide enterprise.

We're talking Christmas wreaths sold to nonprofit organizations for fundraising purposes, a business their father, John V. Mickman, started as a sideline to his job as a Honeywell engineer. When he sold the business to his sons in 1977, the Mickmans were assembling and selling maybe 15,000 wreaths a year, all in the Twin Cities.

"Then we figured out that Christmas was celebrated outside of Minnesota, and we were on our way," Chris said.

The upshot: The Mickmans' fundraising division sold upwards of 600,000 wreaths in 49 states in fiscal 2001, generating $5.1 million of revenue.

Because of the wreath venture's success, the Mickmans have focused time and investment on the fundraising division, to the detriment of other parts of the business.

Indeed, because Chris' job of building the wreath business conflicted with his supervision of the landscaping operation, they closed the landscaping office for six years in the 1990s.

And until the spring of 2001, when the Mickmans opened a $2 million expansion that added 17,000 square feet of office and retail space and a 7,000-square-foot greenhouse, the only facilities on the site were a pole barn, a small house, several plastic-covered hoop houses - and that caboose.

Now the brothers are intent on expanding these two enterprises at rates well in excess of the 10 to 12 percent annual rate they've imposed in the past.

Thus, John has broken down the garden center operation to promote efficiency and doubled the promotion budget to 4 percent of sales. His goal: a 30 percent sales increase this year, to nearly $1.6 million.

Meanwhile, Chris has tripled the investment in equipment and people in the landscaping division, including the hiring of an award-winning landscape designer. His goal: tripling sales, to $2.5 million, within five years, including a 15 percent gain this year, to $925,000. They also expect wreath sales to grow 10 percent this year, to $5.6 million.

All of which is the product of as nicely balanced a package of skills as you'll find in any partnership.

Chris, by all accounts, is the creative force, as well as a gifted recruiter of management talent and a hands-on executive who thrives on digging into large, complex projects.

And John is "the meticulous planner," said their banker, Jerry Roehrich, senior vice president at the Highland Bank. "It's not too often you'll find that kind of detailed planning in a company that size."

The result is a company that has never had a down year, despite its seasonal business.

Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Brothers Continue Family's Role in Wreath Making

Originally published November 26, 1987

By Cheryl Johnson; Staff Writer, Star Tribune

This is the time of year when John S. Mickman can't get away from balsam needles.

Running his fingers through his thick brown hair, he shakes free a few of the needles, which also cling to the sleeve of his sweatshirt. He curries no favor with his wife, Su, when more needles fall to the carpet as he slips off his boots.

When Mickman recounts the story of how his family began producing Christmas wreaths from balsam fir boughs, it is apparent that these ubiquitous green needles are in Mickman's blood as well.

Mickman, 36, of East Bethel, and his brother, Chris, 31, of Coon Rapids, own Mickman Brothers Nurseries Inc. in Ham Lake.

Behind their modest offices, in a greenhouse environment that is a head-cold sufferer's paradise, are the employees who make the Mickmans one of the largest producers of seasonal wreaths in the Twin Cities.

This year a record work force of 150 employees working two shifts - a mostly female crew that also includes a number of Hmong and high school students - will produce a record 100,000-plus wreaths.

The wreaths will dress doors in 36 states, raise funds for countless Scout troops around the nation and sustain a family business that began two generations ago during the Great Depression.

"My grandmother, Johanne Mickman, from Norway, is the one who actually started the Christmas wreaths," said Mickman. "During the Depression she made a wreath for her door."

Mickman's father, John V. Mickman of Andover, saw the wreath as a way to earn money to buy his mother a Christmas present.

He took the wreath and traipsed up and down Iglehart, Summit and other St. Paul avenues, trying to find a buyer, without much luck, he recalled, until he knocked at the door of Mrs. Louis Hill. For 50 cents the daughter-in-law of the Great Northern railroad magnate bought the little boy's wreath.

Elated, John V. returned home with a message for his mother: "I told her she had to make some more."

Today it's a close call as to whether he actually had his mother's permission to sell the wreath off her door. She did receive her Christmas gift - figurines of an Elizabethan couple sipping tea, which she still displays on a dressing table at the cottage where she lives near her grandson, John S.

John V. Mickman learned early and well in the environment provided by his father, the late John E. Mickman.

"My grandfather was an entrepreneur from England who never worked a day in his life for anyone else. During the Depression he had endeavors at which he was trying to make a life. It was all nip and tuck," said John S. Mickman.

"But that was the state of mind of the household then," he said. "When my dad took that wreath and sold it for money that was a great way to contribute."

And contribute it did.

It helped Johanne Mickman start her own business and a craft she practiced until her late 80s. And it helped put John V. and his children through the University of Minnesota.

"I'm really delighted and proud," the senior Mickman says of the work his sons have done since 1976, when he gave them his wreath business for the cost of equipment, about $1,000.

They have expanded their father's business. John S. is president, with specific responsibilities for wreath production and irrigation systems; Chris, the vice president, is in charge of the garden center and landscaping facets of the operation.

This year, the business, which Mickman said grossed about $60,000 when his dad ran it, will have gross sales of more than $500,000.

Joe Ahern, president of Evergreen Industries, Inver Grove Heights, said his company and the Mickman brothers are the Twin Cities' biggest wreath-producers. Ahern said his wreath-making company is probably the largest in the Midwest and one of the largest in the nation. This year Evergreen will produce more than half a million wreaths.

Wreath-making is not the Mickman Brothers' biggest moneymaker (landscaping and supplying irrigation systems are where they do the most business) but it has a psychic value that John S. Mickman says he can't put a price on.

For one thing, the wreath business is a lot less fickle than the other facets of the operation. The landscaping and irrigation business fluctuates with the state of the economy. But every year, Mickman said, the wreathmaking business has outstripped previous year's gains.

Mickman Brothers supplies wreaths to florists, garden centers and cemeteries, but the bulk of the wreath business is done with schools, Cub Scouts and other service organizations that sell them in fund-raisers.

"In all our years we've been in business we have never had a bad account with any of our fund-raiser customers," he said.

Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.