Mark Johnson and faithful companion, Buddy Number Two. (Photo by Jonathan Smith)
A Kasota Man Reinvents Himself by Going Back to a True Original
Back in 2011, at age 59, Mark Johnson may not have looked like your typical entrepreneur, being older than most willing to take the risk at the time. But after losing the business he had owned for 22 years, he mustered up the courage to start all over again. An encore entrepreneur, if you will, giving it a go a second time around.
“I didn’t have a lot of other options,” he reflects. “I had to start over. I wasn’t ready to ride off into the sunset or crawl under a rock. I owned my company, Terrasol, for 22 years. Then in 2008 the economy and my general manager both turned against me at the same time.”
Terrasol, a combination of the Latin words for Earth and sun, built energy efficient homes.
“The collapse of the housing market forced many people to put their plans on hold except for a few that had the means to stay on the course. One of those people had just sold several Panera Bread franchises and had come to our office to help design a large vacation/rental home on Lake Superior. I didn’t have a very good employee contract with my GM and he took the client and started his own business doing the exact same thing as Terrasol. To make sure I didn’t come after him with a lawsuit he got me involved in a lawsuit with one of the projects he was managing that took all my resources to defend and eventually cost me my business when I was forced to file bankruptcy in 2009.”
While it’s still painful to talk about, Johnson is proud of the company he had built.
“At that time we had just gotten through the oil embargoes and we as a nation were in an energy crisis, so my goal was to build more energy efficient homes to reduce our energy needs,” says Johnson.
Terrasol was Johnson’s livelihood for more than two decades. So he was left wondering, “What now?”
“At first I tried to change careers and thought I could make good use of my experience and become an insurance adjuster, so I flew to Texas and took classes to become a licensed adjuster. I soon learned that the only way to break into that business at age 59 was to chase tornadoes, live in my vehicle sometimes and crank out as many claims as possible to the benefit of some large insurance company. Needless to say, that didn’t last long because I felt the poor homeowners weren’t getting treated fairly and that went against my core values. So I went back to what I knew best and enjoyed the most: contracting.”
But this time around his contracting business would look a little different. In 2011, he formed Artisan Restoration. Artisan Restoration restores, designs and creates new homes using reclaimed historic log cabins and barns. It specializes in green construction techniques, reclaimed materials and energy conservation. His interest in log cabins started way before this new business venture.
“In 1994, I was looking for a home to move to some property I had subdivided when someone called to offer me a log cabin on their farm near Le Sueur. Even though it wasn’t what I was looking for … I went to look at it and couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunity for days. I decided to do some test marketing by putting a small classified ad in the Star Tribune to see if there was anyone who would be interested in buying it. Mind you, this was in 1994 when people still read the paper and the internet hadn’t taken over our lives but my phone rang all weekend and I just knew that I could find a buyer, so I bought it. I kept up my ad campaign but I soon realized that the internet would be a big help in selling such a unique item that we started working on our first website. Long story short, it took me almost three years to find a buyer and since their land was in a government set-aside program we had to wait an entire year before we could start the project. With that much lead time I often tell people it’s the first job I started and finished on time,” he muses.
So when Terrasol dissolved, he harkened back to his passion for making old things new, recalling his love of the old log cabins.
“I seem to gravitate toward the extreme with most everything I do, so maybe that’s what led me getting involved with log cabins since they are the oldest homes we have,” Johnson says.
For Johnson, they are more than just a type of construction – they conjure an emotional reaction and nostalgia for a simpler time in a way that no other form of housing can.
“It’s the passion I have for recycling all things old. All my vehicles and most of my equipment (are) at least 20 years old, so I have learned to repair things when they break and if I can’t, it’s really broke and I recycle it. I live in a home that was built using reclaimed materials and it just proves my commitment toward what we do. Some folks endorse a product they use but for me it’s a lifestyle and I live it every day.”
Building green has long been a passion for Johnson.
“In 1976 I designed and built my first home out of a timber frame barn when green building just meant the color scheme. I used reclaimed flooring from a church; doors and windows from a college; and material from several barns to create that home. Since then I have done many different types of construction until I returned to restoration in 1998 when I bought a pioneer log cabin, and the rest is history — no pun intended. I have worked on projects from Coeur d’ Alene to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I have donated my time and skills to local historical societies as a designer, supplier and builder. Today I operate Artisan Restoration out of that first home and it stands as a testament to my dedication to restoration and saving our natural and historic resources.”
Artisan Restoration primarily covers Southern Minnesota, Northern Iowa and Western Wisconsin. However, at times he does get out of the Midwest.
“Last year we shipped a large log cabin package to Prescott, Arizona, and three weeks ago my wife and I delivered the last few logs that would have overloaded the semi for what I call my first paid vacation. On our way home we stopped in Breckenridge, Colorado, to visit a fellow who just bought an old gold mine for a tourist attraction and has plans to put up some guest cabins and a barn home. I am also working with a client who wants to build on Washington Island off the Door County Peninsula if they can find a general contractor to finish the job.
“I am doing more and more consulting work and last year was hired by (a) pilot that flew up from South Dakota and picked me and my wife up at the Mankato airport so I could inspect his log home. He was also a flight instructor … he asked me if I’d like to learn to fly on the way home, so when I said yes we switched to his training plane and I took off, white knuckles and all. In a few weeks we are headed to Virginia to look at a cabin that dates back to the 1750s for my second paid vacation this year – and (I) don’t have to fly the plane this time.”
Just as the geographic area is hard to nail down, so too is the clientele.
“Even though we are a small company in a small niche market, we have a wide range of clients due to the unique services we offer. For example, last year we did a tiny house/cabin package for one client and sold our biggest cabin to a builder in Arizona. We also did barn repairs for a small farmer and a large barn home package for a doctor, so it varies a lot and that’s what I like about the business. I used to think about things like my target market and the competition, but those days are over, thank goodness, and all I need to worry about today is finding the right customers and the right help to make it all happen. I must say thanks to shows like Barnwood Builders and a few others that have raised awareness about these old structures and helped my business to grow. I have been called by several production companies in regards to being involved in a show like that but I like what I do and taking on a role like that might take the fun out of it for me.”
As Johnson eyes retirement, he is expanding the number of Artisan Restoration employees; he is now up to six. Like so many other employers in our region, he has had to think outside the box to fill slots.
“Finding new employees has always been difficult because of the travel aspect. So this year I took a different approach to cut down on travel and find people that not only wanted a job but a career opportunity. Let’s face it, I’m going to be 68 this year and I really should be thinking about retiring someday, so I decided to share that with everyone and focus on hiring at least a few people that could appreciate the opportunity here at Artisan Restoration. As for employees in general, I used to consider them a necessary evil, but as I got older I knew I had to have more help. So this year I decided to change my role from crew leader to mentor and let go of the reins a lot more. This is a lot easier for someone who sells tires or makes widgets because for the most part it’s just a matter of delegating work to others, but it is not an easy task for someone like me who has all the experience and is really the lifeblood of the business.”
But that, he says, is not the most challenging part of his owning this business.
“The most challenging part of my job is yet to come this year as I will be letting go of the reins and handing them off to others as I take part in a program called Half-Retire, or something like that. It was created for people like me with a small business who will be lucky to sell it for what it’s worth and retire in comfort. In a nutshell it simply means changing my old habits and mindset, wanting to do other things and taking the steps that will allow it to happen.
“After being self-employed for most of my life this will not be as simple as it sounds because people like me are workaholics but there isn’t a 12-Step program for us to follow. I haven’t bought into the Half-Retire program yet but I’m doing the research and taking the first steps to make sure I’m ready to enroll in the program full time and be successful at it. My real hope is that I will find someone who will take this opportunity and I will work for them in whatever role they choose, as mentor or sensei. Finding that person will be my next biggest challenge so if you know of anyone that is looking to own their own a business doing challenging work and preserving historic buildings have them call me. I would love to meet someone that fits that role and shares some of the same goals as I do.”
Green Before It Was Cool
“I live in a 100-year-old barn I took down, moved 20 miles and converted into a home in 1976, so switching to log cabins was just a sidestep away. FYI — I designed that home while I was in a drafting class at MSU and got a poor grade because it was small compared to the homes my classmates were drawing. I explained this to my instructor but it didn’t change his mind or my grade. I often wonder if anyone but me ever built the home they designed because I not only recycled that barn but windows from Bethany College, flooring from a church, steel roofing and many other things when green building just meant the color was green.”
The Best Part of the Job
“The best part of the job is finding the right cabin or barn for each customer and seeing that more-than-100-year-old dilapidated old cabin or barn transformed into a beautiful new structure. There are many more problems and pitfalls with this type of work, so navigating through them is very rewarding to me. But the icing on the cake is getting a testimonial from the customer that confirms they feel the same satisfaction as I do,” says Johnson.
A Family Effort
“I grew up in Denmark, Wisconsin, and came to Mankato to attend Bethany Lutheran College in 1970. It was here that I met my wife, Sandy, and got married in 1974. She has been my bookkeeper and partner throughout my entire career, as we celebrated our 45th anniversary this year. We have a son, Lance, who is married and teaches special needs kids here in Mankato. Our daughter lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband and teaches yoga, health and wellness while helping raise our two beautiful granddaughters. It would have been nice if they had taken an interest in my business but they chose careers that help restore people instead of old buildings, which is just as important, if not more so, in today’s world.”
1102 Terrasol Lane
Kasota, MN 56050