My dear wife and I love Menards.
We go there all the time. One of our favorite things is the usually twice-annual promotion offering a discount -- say 14%, or 17% -- on however much you can fit into a paper shopping bag. We stock up on light bulbs, batteries, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, garbage bags, sandpaper, shellac, screws and nails, chain saw supplies and, of course, peanuts. We get two Menards sale bags and go through the checkout line separately, casually violating the one-bag-per-household rule.
What a great place this is, we think, as we head back to our car.
We also shop Menards for home improvement projects. I'm someone who fancies himself a do-it-yourselfer, though I'm actually more of a not-knowing-what-I'm-doinger. I've put in electrical outlets and such (those black smudges from electrical fires wipe right off with a little paint thinner), changed plumbing fixtures (note to self: next time, turn off water at the source before removing) and built household furniture (including a picnic table in the final stages of shedding the finish I put on two years ago.) Menards saves me big money on everything I need.
And let's face it. Saving a few cents here and a few dollars there is the main reason to go to Menards. If I want convenience, or need advice on a project, I go to Ace or Dorn. If I want a service department to back up a product, I go to Sears. If I want it cheap, I go to Menards.
But now my relationship with a store I love has been sorely tested. I finally got around to reading "Big Money," a profile of owner John Menard, in the May issue of Milwaukee Magazine, written by Mary Van de Kamp Nohl. It is the portrait of an extraordinary miserly and petty man.
Menards, with more than 200 stores in 11 states, has $6.6 billion in annual sales. John Menard, who launched the business in Eau Claire in 1962, has an estimated net worth of $5.2 billion, making him the richest person in Wisconsin. Yet he apparently gives little to foundations or charitable organizations. A letter writer to Milwaukee Magazine told of how the store refused to even donate lumber to an employee Eagle Scout's project, to build bird houses for a local nature preserve.
John Menard can be, Nohl wrote, "cruelly demanding with employees." That's putting it mildly. Some examples:
- Menards managers must sign agreements in which they consent to being personally penalized for things that go wrong. For instance, having 15 carts in the parking lot draws a $10 fine. And they must pay $100 per minute if they open late.
- Managers are forbidden from building their own homes, as protection against the possibility that they may steal building materials. And private investigators have been hired to check whether employees who undertake even minor home-improvement projects are using pilfered supplies.
- Eldon Helget, a Menards lumber yard manager in Burnsville, Minnesota, felt he needed to build a new home to accommodate his wheelchair-bound daughter. So he accepted a demotion with a $15,000 salary cut. When John Menard learned of this deal, he fired Helget. And then, when another lumber yard offered him a job, Helget had to go to court to get out from under a Menards contract clause that barred him from working for a competitor for a year.
- Menards is aggressively anti-union. Norm Baumann, a former assistant store manager in Wausau, said he was made to attend a day-and-a-half-long seminar about fighting unions. "If a person had ever worked at a union shop, you couldn't hire them," Baumann told the magazine, adding that he once had to fire two promising management trainees because they had worked in high school as baggers at a unionized grocery store.
- Dissent or disagreement of any kind is not tolerated. Steve Faber, a former store manager in Iowa, said he suddenly began getting negative reviews and was ultimately replaced (he was offered a lower-paying job but quit instead) after he questioned a new rule requiring managers to pay a $200 deductible if a delivery driver they hired was in an accident. (I'm not making this up.)
- According to former store manager Scott Bropst, Menards once deducted $2,000 from the bonus of a manager in North Dakota, on top of reducing his pay, because he put in just 35 to 40 hours -- not the required 55 -- when his wife gave birth to triplets, two of whom eventually died.
- Menards has a long history of being an environmental scofflaw, paying at least $3.8 million in fines since 1976 for ignoring or violating state law. In 1997, John Menard was caught using his own pickup truck to haul ash contaminated with chromium and arsenic to his home, to toss out with the regular trash.
Beyond these particulars, the portrait of John Menard that emerges from this article is that of a mean and vulgar man who has made a mess of his personal life, destroying relationships and friendships. His money apparently hasn't bought him love, or happiness.
And that's too bad, because many people do love his stores. They love the idea of vast lumberyards that occupy acres of land, and getting great deals on the stuff that makes homes more livable.
I am one of these people. But I'm also someone who tries to use money in socially conscious ways. I invest in companies screened as socially responsible. I mostly avoid businesses like Wal-Mart that exploit their own workers and the people who make their products. Do I really want to be giving money to a man like John Menard?
I've thought about it, and come to some conclusions. First, the beleaguered managers and employees at Menards would not benefit from my decision to shop elsewhere. Second, shopping elsewhere for certain items means giving money to places like Home Depot, which I doubt is run by people who are less corrupted.
And finally, from what I gather, John Menard is already paying a terrible personal price for his smallness and meanness. Whether people embrace or reject his stores isn't going to change that. Like the rest of us, he can build almost anything, even a retail empire. But, in the end, he won't take nothing with him but his soul.