Robert W. Johnson
J. F. Johnson Lumber Co.
Sawmills and lumber and Johnsons.
They just seem to go together here in Maryland---and have since
the late 1700s. Bob Johnson, president of The J. F. Johnson Lumber
Company, explains that his ancestors first came to the United
States in the 1600s from Kent County, England. They settled on
Maryland's Eastern Shore and, like most folks in that area at
the time, became farmers. After the Civil War, the Johnsons set
up a sawmill in the middle of what is now Salisbury in Wicomico
County. The mill no longer exists on the site, but the pond still
bears the name, "Johnson's Mill Pond."
the years, more sawmills were built and operated by the family
on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. In the early 1900s,
purchases of timberland brought the Johnsons to Anne Arundel County.
Locating a new mill in the Marley Creek area near Glen Burnie
enabled the company to ship and receive material by mule-drawn
wagons, by rail or by sea. Shortly after setting up that sawmill,
the opening of the Johnsons' first lumber yard seemed a logical
In 1926, the company acquired its Annapolis location with the
purchase of the Meredith Lumber Company on City Dock. In 1942,
the federal government ordered that the property be vacated for
expansion of the adjacent Naval Academy. The Johnson Lumber Company
purchased 13 acres of farmland at the corner of West Street and
Chinquapin Round Road, the site now known as the Annapolis yard.
Interestingly, some years later, the Glen Burnie yard was acquired
by Anne Arundel County for use in its revitalization of downtown
Glen Burnie and the company moved its northern location to Millersville.
The company headquarters remain there.
Bob Johnson likes to call it a family company but is careful to
clarify the term. "It's not like dad and his three sons," he says.
"It never was." Rather, the operation of the business has been
passed down through the generations. "I'm in the third generation,"
Johnson says. "My son is working here now and he is the fourth
Johnson adds that other families have become involved in the company,
notably the Eason family, who were investors in the company back
in the 1920s, and the Lee family (of Lee Airport in Edgewater)
and are still involved today. Clarence Eason is the current treasurer;
Steve Rickert, not a family member, is vice president; Bob Johnson's
cousin, David Glenn, who is a physician in Washington, D.C., is
the secretary. There are about 70 stockholders. "The board of
directors and the stockholders have been extremely agreeable over
my entire career," Johnson says. "We do things as a group; make
decisions as a group, and it's a system that works very well.
It's as stable as a business can get, I think---the same management
since 1968 and, in a sense, the same management since the beginning."
Johnson grew up in the Towson area and moved with his family to
Anne Arundel County at age 15 when his father took over as vice
president of the company. As a high school student in Severna
Park, he worked one summer in the hardware department of Montgomery
Ward and another at the Annapolis yard. He officially joined the
company in 1975 after receiving a bachelor's degree in business
administration at the University of Miami. Johnson began as a
management trainee and moved through the ranks of department manager,
store manager, vice president to president.
"My father was president before me," Johnson explains, "and I
worked with him most of my career until he died at the end of
1999. I was able to observe his way of doing business for a very
long time, as I'm sure he learned from his dad."
One of the greatest challenges for J. F. Johnson Lumber Company
has been to be large enough to remain in business against the
national companies. "To be in the lumber business these days,
you have to be larger," Johnson says. "It's very hard to have
a small lumber yard because competition doesn't allow for that.
You have to get up to a certain size and scale to really have
The addition of an outside sales force has helped significantly
in growing the business, by calling on builders and offering specialized,
individual services. "We have probably doubled our sales volume
in the last six years or so," Johnson says. "We're always looking
to do what our customers want us to do---in other words, to supply
things when they need it; to supply the right products; to be
friendly about it; to be very efficient about it. If we could
do it like the pizza business, we would---you know, you call up
and 30 minutes later, you get it!"
After 60 years in the same location, the Annapolis yard is about
to be replaced with an innovative, 70,000-square-foot building
in Edgewater. The new facility features indoor, drive-through
loading. "Essentially, what you do," says Johnson," is drive your
pickup truck into a long aisle that will have racks of merchandise
on both sides. At the end, you turn around and come back another
long aisle and you check out at the end. It's as if you could
drive your truck through a home center." The two aisles are hundreds
of feet long and are three lanes wide. The center lane is for
traveling; the two side lanes are for stopping to browse or load
Johnson, who describes himself as "sort of a designer-type person,
a creator," enjoyed designing much of the new building. After
hours, he gives of his expertise to his church, Evangelical Presbyterian
Church of Annapolis, where he is building program director for
a new, 11-room addition. "Something to keep my evenings full,"
he says with a smile. The West Street yard property is expected
to be sold. Mixed-use development, primarily residential, is planned
by a Washington-based company.
Johnson is already looking beyond Edgewater at the possibility
of a fourth location. While the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington
remain very attractive, he seems to have given the lower Eastern
Shore a good bit of thought from a marketing perspective. "If
we ever go to Salisbury, we're gonna say we're coming home---we
won't know a soul, but we're gonna say, 'Johnson Lumber returns
to the lower Eastern Shore!'"