Since 1925, the name Tollefson’s has come to be associated with a reputation for excellence in the home furnishings and flooring business.
Based in Minot, N.D., this fourth-generation family business does a lot of things right.
Tollefson’s Retail Group operates as Slumberland Furniture, Tollefson’s Carpetland, Carpet Garage Flooring Center and Tollefson’s Contract Flooring, with locations across North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.
We caught up with John Mackner, chief operating officer of the flooring division and an in-law of the family business.
His wife, Emily, leads as CEO and one of three owners.
Other family members in the business and also owners include Emily’s brother, Brent Tollefson, who is the director of sales of the flooring division side.
Their cousin Brandon Tollefson is the store manager of Tollefson’s Carpetland and oversees Tollefson’s Contract Flooring in Minot.
As you approach a century in business, what were some of the key drivers of your growth and success?
Our people are the biggest driver to our success. We are extremely lucky to hire very trustworthy, loyal and passionate people. A good chunk of our employees have over 25 years of service with us, and most recently we had an employee retire who had been with us since she was 18 years old — 48 years of service!
Our people make our businesses who we are and give us the culture we need. They connect with customers within the communities we operate, they bring a passion to the stores for helping and serving those customers, and we make sure our people are treated like family. We’re a family-owned and -operated business, and we make sure our people feel like they are not just a part of our business but also a part of our family.
What are some ways you operate as a family business? How do you approach your family/owner meetings?
We make sure each family member has a role or position that fits their strengths. This is not a family business where you have a right to work at it just because you are a family member. You need to earn your job or role with us, and your position within the family business will be determined by what your strengths are and what you bring to the business. There isn’t one family member out of the four of us in this business that is in a position that doesn’t suit them.
When it comes to meetings, we are constantly in communication with each other daily. There isn’t a day that goes by where my phone hasn’t received a text message from Brent, Brandon or Emily regarding something about our business.
Also, the four of us typically meet twice per year strictly for strategic planning purposes. We do this meeting off-site so we can get away from any distractions of the business and we can focus on looking down the road. These twice-a-year meetings have been huge for us to really work on the business and also to strengthen our own relationships.
As someone who married into the family business, what thoughts do you have for other in-laws taking on day-to-day roles?
Working with your family can be tough, especially with your spouse. You need to make sure that you are able to draw the distinction between business and personal life. You can get in a bad habit of always talking about work, even at home. It’s OK to do that occasionally but try to make sure to leave some time to talk non-business-related stuff with your spouse too.
Also, be clear about your own career interests and goals. The family business you are involved in may not even be remotely what you had in mind as a career path before coming aboard. Make sure your spouse and other family members understand where you want to be down the road and how that could fit in to the family business. You can still bring value and insight to the family business while maintaining your own career goals.
Nearly every retailer experienced disruption but also opportunity in 2020 and continuing through this year. What have the past 18 months been like for you, and what strategies helped you navigate through it?
The last 18 months have been busy to say the least; I’m sure that is not different from anyone else out there. COVID presented issues we haven’t seen before nor were we even prepared for. Our businesses did our best to get through it, and we’re proud to say that we did not lay off nor did we furlough any of our employees throughout COVID. We did have to close our stores in Montana and Minnesota for a few months, but we never ceased employment with anyone. That was huge for our stores and for our employees. We made sure everyone had a job with us through COVID.
Outside of employment, inventory disruptions have caused significant delays to customers receiving their products. Our furniture stores were hit hard by this with five to six months of inventory delays — meaning, if you bought a couch in February, it was not being delivered until September. Think about that for a second; we had customers waiting five to six months for their furniture. That required a lot of time and communication from our people to make sure the customer stayed up to date with their delivery times and were in the loop with when delivery would happen.
How has involvement in Prairie Family Business Association benefited your family business?
PFBA has allowed our family to have conversations we normally wouldn’t have. PFBA has so many webinars, speakers and other workshops that you can attend, which spark ideas and conversations with your family members that would be tough to start on your own. They give you an outlet to begin those conversations, and they have resources you can utilize to help take those conversations further. Talking about things like roles and responsibilities, goals, transition planning and estate planning are difficult topics to bring up. PFBA has allowed us to have those conversations very easily.
What insights would you give to other families working toward being a fourth-generation family business?
Be patient and treat each other with respect. Everything takes time in a business as well as a family. You need time to develop as a person, and you need time to develop as a group. Some people develop quicker than others, and being patient with each other while respecting that each person needs their own time to process things will help further your relationships with one another.
Also, be respectful towards each other when discussing the family business — and really anything in general. Don’t get caught up in arguments and negative remarks towards each other. These only breed discomfort and distrust with one another. Respecting each person’s opinions will go a long way towards building respect towards you.
And, looking to the future, what are you doing to prepare for the fifth generation?
They’re pretty young right now, but we’re making sure that they know it takes hard work and commitment to be in the family business. This isn’t something you can just walk in and take the reins from day one. You need to put in the time and do the work in order to understand and build relationships in our business.
Prairie Family Business Association helps family businesses thrive through generations by providing a resource network for family business success.