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Mike Johnson: ‘Having a strong and supportive team with a trusting relationship is key to success.’

By Hilary Reeves

Delta Western Sitka Terminal Manager Mike Johnson describes his teenage self as the type of guy who “was only interested in learning specifically what I was interested in learning.” Born and raised in Sitka, his childhood was a combination of whimsy and self-imposed work.

“I grew up on a small private island where my parents built a cabin over the course of several years,” he said. “We had no running water, no city power, and no dock, and hauled all our drinking water, fuel, groceries, and living supplies by landing our small boat directly onto the beach.”

The proud owner of “quite a few pets,” Johnson was nine when his parents helped him start a dog-boarding business on the island.

“When people went on vacation, the local veterinary shop would refer people to me to watch their dogs,” he said. “The daily fee was $6 per dog per day and I shoveled a lot of poo, but made a lot of money” – money that was soon sunk into Johnson’s very own boat, which he purchased at the age of 11.

“For the price, the boat was a real steal and seaworthy enough that my parents deemed it safe enough for me to stay out of trouble,” he laughed. “I spent my summers ranging out as far as a tank of gas would carry me, usually exploring the surrounding islands, camping, and river fishing with my trusty golden retriever, Sandy.”

Johnson’s teenage recreation settled on motorsports. He said he crashed enough three- and four-wheelers and motorcycles that he had to work to afford the replacement parts.

“I was reckless enough that I kept an inventory of spare parts so that when I crashed and wrecked something I didn’t have much downtime,” he said. “My body still hurts from those days.”

Once he was old enough to hold a regular job, he did everything from newspaper routes to mechanic’s helpers, to running a small crew at a custom meat and seafood processing plant. He also fished commercially for halibut on the family longliner boat during the dangerous “derby days.”

When his high school wrestling coach told him he couldn’t work and wrestle, that was the end of Johnson’s career in organized sports.

“I had lots of wheeler parts and gas to buy,” he laughed.

Homeschooled through elementary school, Johnson graduated Valedictorian from Sitka High School.

“I never liked school, but I endured it,” he said. “I always tried harder than most of my friends, which always resulted in good grades. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I graduated but my parents impressed upon me the need to gain a skill of some type. I decided that I would be a mechanic and enrolled in an automotive and heavy diesel technical school in Phoenix. I told myself I’d never return to Sitka except to visit.”

Returning to Sitka

Johnson returned to Alaska after his schooling and took a job as a heavy diesel mechanic for Alaska Power Service in Cordova. After several months without a single day off, he joined Allen Marine in Sitka.

“Between Alaska Power Services and where I am now at Delta Western, I ventured down many different career paths: welding and fabrication, truck driver, operations manager, fleet vessel maintenance, facilities maintenance, boat rigging and repair, small engine repair, boat captain, freshwater guiding, and crane operator, amongst other things.”

The game-changer, he said, was the day he was offered a job helping run the local boatyard, Halibut Point Marine Services.

“The owners told me, ‘you’ll need to get your CDL; we plan to enter the fuel sales market to keep you busy during the slow winter months,’” he said. “The next thing I knew, they’d bought a brand new Kenworth fuel truck and told me to drive it around the boatyard until I felt comfortable taking my road test.”

Once Johnson had his CDL, he was given a handwritten list of friends and family – Sitka is a small town and he already knew everyone – to whom he was to deliver fuel.

“I was told to get the fuel into the truck and figure out how to get the fuel from the truck into the customer’s fuel tanks,” he said. “I had no training whatsoever in handling or delivering fuel. I taught myself most everything and asked questions about the rest to anyone who would talk to me.”

Before long, Johnson was managing both boatyard and fueling operations – “a whopping three fuel trucks.” The company began fulfilling the Alaska Airlines contract for Delta Western and was subsequently awarded two other large fuel contracts. In July 2013, Delta Western bought out Halibut Point Marine Services, the company Johnson had spent five years building. He accepted a management position with Delta Western. The transition between companies wasn’t smooth.

“Most of us aren’t born with natural gifts or talents that will bring success. Most of us just have to really apply ourselves and be willing to try harder than the rest. This mindset has always served me well.”

“Within a month we’d lost all but one part-time employee and about 65 percent of our customer base,” he said. “Back during those difficult days, I was trying to hire good people to help me out in the office. I was only allowed to hire one person, but I had two absolutely awesome candidates for the same job. I approached my boss at the time and explained my quandary. He smiled and said, ‘hire them both; truly good help is so hard to find that we can’t afford not to pick them up if we have a chance.’ I hired both candidates and they are both working alongside me to this day. The boss’s advice has served me well.”

One of Johnson’s greatest challenges was and is working with other people.

“I’ve figured out that people are both the problem and the solution, most of it depends on how you treat them and how you relate to them. Learning this has been a long journey for me.”

His Sitka team, he said, he great – driven, focused and can take a joke.

“We do a lot of that around here,” he laughed. “Having a strong and supportive team with a trusting relationship is key to success. Without a strong team, nothing would get done and I’d be quite ineffective.”

He said what he most enjoys about the career and company he’s settling into is the variety of the work – and the thrill of the chase.

“One minute I’m flying a desk, the next I’m fixing something, the next I’m in a tank truck hauling fuel to a first-time customer or out on a sales call,” he said. “Heck, recently I’ve been traveling to other scenic small towns in my region seeing new things and meeting new people. I enjoy the challenge and the thrill of the chase.”

A subsistence lifestyle

Johnson said that his only regret so far is the fact that he once worked a “dead end, do-nothing” job in the public sector.

“If I could take it all back, I’d have stayed in the private sector for my whole career,” he said. “I consider those years of my life as wasted years; it’s where I learned the meaning of bureaucracy and ineffectiveness.”

He’s most proud of his wife and three boys, and is, as one might expect, most comfortable in the Great Outdoors. He said he has more hobbies and interest than time or money: marksmanship, light construction, the restoration of a 34-foot pleasure boat first built in 1969, and coaching a youth competitive clay target team that normally places among the top three (of 22) teams in the state.

“I also spend a lot of time camping and exploring,” he said. “I live as much of a subsistence lifestyle as I can. I normally set out to harvest at least seven Sitka Blacktail deer, lots of halibut, sockeye salmon, spot prawns, octopus, and a few other species. I grow what I can in the garden also.”

Every July, Johnson takes his family on a 10-day boat trip to Tenakee Springs, a small community between Sitka and Juneau built around natural hot springs.

“My family just about plans their lives around this annual pilgrimage and it’s the biggest event of the year for my kids,” he laughed. “We live on our boat during the trip and go more or less wherever the wind blows us – so long as we are in Tenakee on Independence day for the celebrations. For such a tiny town they put on a really big event and the kids have an absolute blast every year.”

While Johnson’s retirement plans have him outdoors (and still working) – “maybe a winter caretaker position at a remote lodge” – he said he’s having fun turning over lots of stones for Delta Western and doing what he can to help the company grow.

“We’ve got some very innovative people working here and we’re willing to think outside the box for the first time in a while. I could see us expanding into different areas of the state and possibly into other areas in the Northwest. I think we’ll be working on buying and selling the energy sources of the future and focusing more on the relationships with some of our larger customers to grow into the same geographic areas that they expand into. I think we will be looking into some very strategic partnerships that will be an absolute game-changer for us – that will give us an edge over our competitors and help us to better serve our customers.

“I tell my kids all the time that if they want to get ahead in this world they need to be willing to try harder than most everyone else around them. Most of us aren’t born with natural gifts or talents that will bring success. Most of us just have to really apply ourselves and be willing to try harder than the rest. This mindset has always served me well.”

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.