Friday March 1, 2013

We hear all the time about how small businesses are suffering in this economy, but for many of us those news reports are often just statistics far removed from our daily lives. It’s a whole different story, however, when the effects of the recession and the anemic recovery are felt closer to home.

A case in point is R.N. Johnson Inc., a fixture in Walpole, N.H., since it was founded 84 years ago by Ralph Nathan (Jack) Johnson. With $10 to his name, financing from a college friend and a drive to succeed, Johnson started a potato farm. In 1929, recognizing that mechanized machinery was the future of farming, he became a dealer for Thompson & Hogue, the distributor for Deere in Concord, N.H.

Initially his goal was to supply himself with farming equipment and sell to neighbors on the side. However, both the farm and the dealership became so successful that he sold the farm and devoted all his energy to the dealership. The business continued to thrive for decades, carrying on its tradition of quality equipment and great customer service under the ownership of Jack Johnson’s grandson, Alan Johnson, who took over the store 19 years ago.

"R.N. Johnson, Inc. has matured into one of the largest equipment dealers in the Northeast, with 50 full-time employees, many millions of dollars in inventory and $10 million annual sales," according to a company history, written in 1998, that appears on the R.N. Johnson website.

However, Alan Johnson himself acknowledged that running the business has not been without its challenges in a tough industry. He said he once had to re-mortgage his house, cash in his retirement and all his insurance policies to keep the business going and often had to borrow money to meet payroll.

The poor economy of the last few years certainly didn’t help. But the final blow came in January when John Deere terminated its contract with the family-owned business and immediately began removing the company’s merchandise from the store. Johnson was forced to lay off six employees, and another 14 will lose their jobs at the end of the month -- compared to the 50 full-time workers R.N. Johnson had in the late 1990s.

Johnson said he exhausted every possible means to secure new tractor suppliers as well as financing to continue his business operations.

"It became apparent that these efforts would not bear fruit within the time frame necessary to remain a viable business," he stated in a release.

Barry Nelson, a manager of media relations for the international corporation, previously told the Reformer that confidentiality reasons prevented him from explaining why John Deere decided to cancel the contract. When asked if John Deere was concerned about small businesses, Nelson said the company is concerned about its relationship with its customers.

However, by canceling its contract with this small business, John Deere is hurting its customers throughout southern Vermont and New Hampshire. Northrax Northeast in Springfield, Vt., about 16 miles from R.N. Johnson, sells John Deere construction tractors, but not the farming ones that are in demand in this area. Locals have to drive all the way to Rutland, Vt., for John Deere farming tractors.

That’s an inconvenience, to say the least, but for area farmers and other customers loyal to the iconic John Deere brand, R.N. Johnson’s closure is much more than just an inconvenience. It represents the loss of a Main Street mainstay in Walpole and throughout the region. This is a business that survived the Great Depression and countless recessions since then, only to be toppled by this latest hardship.

It’s a sad ending to a long, happy relationship that R.N. Johnson established over the years with its many loyal customers.