L&M Fleet Supply may never have existed if not for the side trip taken by two northern Minnesota entrepreneurs set to purchase a Hamm’s Beer distributorship.
It was 1958. Delbert Matteson and James Luthen were traveling to St. Paul to close on the deal, when they decided to stop at a grand opening of a farm and fleet store in Brainerd.
They noticed a line of people at the door and realized there was potential for that type of business venture. The two proceeded to scrap the beer distribution ambition, and in 1959, L&M Fleet Supply was born in Grand Rapids.
The now three-generational, family owned company that has grown to 10 stores in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
The big customer appreciation day is set for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at each location, complete with cookouts, prizes, and storewide discounts.
A similar event is held each summer, but this time the festivities are for a significant milestone, said Austin Koppelmann, store manager of the Hibbing location.
It’s remarkable, after all, he said, to have a small business grow so substantially, yet remain true to its core values, not to mention “stay in the family.”
Each location today will give away an Orca cooler, Pelican kayak, and $500 L&M gift card. The first 250 customers at each store will receive an L&M bait towel; 60th anniversary hats will also be for sale.
The company’s hundreds of employees were additionally treated to their own celebration with giveaways and the chance to dress in “circa 1959” attire. There was also an employee “company history” trivia contest.
So, all trivia buffs, listen up — here’s a bit of the makings of L&M.
Matteson, along with silent partner Luthen, envisioned being one of the first merchants in the area to buy direct from factories and sell directly to the customer with a small and fair markup.
That’s just what the original owners did. They joined the Mid-States Distributing Co. buying group, which has grown to more than 700 stores in the United States and Canada.
Out of their vision, the company philosophy and logo was established: “Quality at a Discount.”
The first L&M Fleet Supply store was a small wooden building that barely had room for the sign on the front.
It had just one employee, Len Johnson. The Grand Rapids store moved to its current location in 2009, and now has 97,000 square feet of retail space.
Second-generational co-owner Terry Matteson told the MDN in 2002 that one of L&M’s earliest, most effective and inexpensive advertising campaigns took place not long after the first store opened. Someone painted “Dirty Price Cutters” on the back of the company pickup.
Next came locations in Cloquet in 1961, Virginia in 1963, and Hibbing in 1968. In 1985, the company acquired two farm and fleet stores in Bemidji and Park Rapids. Later, new facilities were built in each city.
In 1995, the Virginia store moved to a new building on Highway 169 in Mountain Iron, meant to better serve the Quad Cities area.
Stores were later built in Detroit Lakes in 2004; Hayward, Wis., in 2012; Ashland, Wis., in 2016; and Thief River Falls last October.
A distribution center with corporate offices was constructed in Grand Rapids in 1994. It currently encompasses 102,500 square feet of warehouse and office space.
“The most important thing is we treat people the way we would want to be treated, whether customers or employees,” Del Matteson, grandson of the founder, said in a phone interview.
He and his brother, Shawn Matteson, along with Erik Andersen, the son-in-law of second-generational co-owner Don Ley, are the current owners and operators.
“All three of us worked (at L&M) through high school,” then pursued an education and came back, Del Matteson said. They worked various roles before taking over the business.
“It means a lot that we live by our mission” of valuing customers and offering quality at a discount, he added.
Stores carry thousands of items in 14 departments, including lawn and garden, automotive, sporting goods, home improvement, housewares, clothing, footwear, toys, and pets.
Farm goods include tractor attachments, fencing supplies, equine and chicken products, bee keeping items, and livestock grooming and feeding supplies.
L&M is a sizable company that retains its “small business attitude,” Koppelmann noted.
The current owners, like those before them, carry out the “golden rule,” he said. “They treat people like family.”
Today the company employs about 800, Matteson said. “Employees have been a huge part of our success.”
As have “loyal customers.”
“Many have been shopping at L&M all of their lives,” Koppelmann said.
“I travel to a lot of stores and see people who are sons and daughters of customers my dad helped,” Matteson said. “There are still old-timers who remember experiences with my grandfather.”
L&M Fleet Supply additionally gives back to the community, supporting events in each town and local organizations. The company also gives out $2,000 scholarships to employees and their dependents, he said. “We pride ourselves in being a good steward of our community.”
“It’s a great company to work for,” said Koppelmann, who has been with L&M for eight years. “I started loading carts in Grand Rapids,” said the store manager. “I hope to continue (with the company) for many years to come.”