photo of the manager Doug Milholin
Johnstone Supply, a heating and air conditioning wholesale only supplier, opened its Comstock Park Branch in 2008 when Michigan’s economy was essentially in the hole. “A lot of our competitors thought we were crazy,” said Doug Milholin, manager at the store located at 3542 Mill Creek Dr. But the company saw potential in the location to serve contractors on the north side of Grand Rapids. No matter what the economy, we “always need heat,” noted Milholin.
The building had housed a former heating wholesale supplier, Milholin said, so contractors were familiar with the location, and it was easy for them to continue coming there for supplies. The Johnstone name, well known throughout the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) industry, also attracted contractors. Additionally the store’s location near the 131 Expressway makes it convenient for customers and deliveries.
The company put “thousands and thousands of dollars” into renovating the building and lot, said Milholin. The building is now a total of 15,000 square feet - the sales and showroom area is 1200 square feet and the rest is warehouse. There are eight employees, all full-time including Milholin. Jobs include design, outside sales, counter sales, and warehouse positions. HVAC contractors can buy three to four hundred thousand different products through Johnstone Supply, said Milholin, holding up the almost two inch thick catalog which is also online. If they don’t have it in stock, Milholin said they can generally get an item within 24 hours.
Johnstone Supply is a national company with a chain of more than 400 stores throughout the United States doing $2 billion in annual sales. The stores are served by five distribution centers around the country. The eight stores in West Michigan and northern Indiana are headquartered in Muskegon and are served by the Joliet IL distribution center. Cal Garbrecht is president of the Johnstone Supply Muskegon Group. The Musketong Group Johnstone stores give back to the community in ways like donating furnaces to Habitat for Humanity. The Johnstone Muskegon Group puts on chicken dinners for employees and customers at each of its stores during the holidays, and this year the event attracted 240 people at the Comstock Park store dinner.
According to the web site, Johnstone Supply was “established in 1953 by two gentlemen with the last names of Johnson and Stone.” The two eventually sold the business to John Shank who concentrated on merchandising by creating the Johnstone Supply Catalog, “the most comprehensive parts and supplies catalog in the industry.” The online catalog was introduced in 2001. Johnstone was one of the first wholesalers to organize inventory online, said Milholin. The company, based in Portland OR, grew to a dozen company-owned stores and 20 franchises and then restructured itself into a cooperative with individual members sharing ownership. Recognizing the value of skilled employees, the company created Johnstone University that offers hundreds of classes online to train their employees, said Milholin. He added that Johnstone customers can also take classes, noting it’s to the company’s benefit that their customers are knowledgeable in how to use, install, and service the products they purchase.
Milholin has been with Johnstone Supply for twelve years, working in design and outside sales, and came to manage the Comstock Park branch in 2012. Before that Milholin worked for mechanical contractors and then wholesale suppliers. Milholin is originally from Big Rapids and went to Ferris State University earning an associate’s degree in HVAC. He choose his career based on advice from his father who told him he would always have a job if he went into HVAC. Milholin said there is a shortage of skilled workers in the HVAC industry, noting young people are put off hours that are “on call.” He noted there are other jobs in HVAC such as design, sales, and engineering. So far his father’s advice has proven to be good.
Milholin and his wife Beth, a nurse, live in Plainfield Township. They have four adult daughters and eleven grandchildren. He said his time is pretty full with “work, church, and grandkids.”