When we look at pioneers of a product, we often think of Steve Jobs for creating the personal computer or Thomas Edison for developing the electric light bulb. Yet, not many think of one innovative pioneer who took the bumper of a Chevy pickup, and a grain silo conveyor belt, and developed one of the most popular recreational vehicles in the world. The man I am referring to is David Johnson, one of the cofounders of Polaris Industries.
Johnson along with his cousins, and coworkers Edgar, and Allan Hetteen, formed Polaris in 1954, as a farm equipment repair shop. Although the company focused mainly on serving the farmers and the local electrical co-ops, Johnson and two of his co-workers had other ideas. With the stress of having a company to run, the men realized that they didn’t have time to ski back and forth to their hunting and fishing spots, twenty miles north. In late 1955, with the help from his nephew Orlen Johnson and Paul Knochenmus, the three men used a car bumper for skis, a Briggs and Stratton motor, chains and other miscellaneous parts laying around the machine shop, to create Polaris’s first “snow traveler”, which took its first trip across a Roseau field in early 1956. Soon after, Johnson and his team packed up their snowmobile, and headed across the country to try and find dealers who could sell this recreational wonder to fishermen, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts. As the idea of snowmobiles continued to build, Edgar Hetteen decided to boost the hype, and in 1960 took the Polaris snow traveler on a trip across Alaska.
Although the idea seems great now, the developing and marketing of the snowmobile, led to some financial hardship for Johnson and his partners in the early years, but the company battled through it, but not without help from its employees, who Johnson cared deeply about. Johnson continuously gave credit to his employees for the reason Polaris succeeded, giving examples such as when the employees would work for several weeks without getting paid, and would constantly tell David to just pay them when he got the next contract.
This support from his employees is what led Johnson to offer profit sharing, and worker benefits to all employees, to make sure he could take care of them, the way they had taken care of him. Johnson retired from Polaris in 1988, but was a permeant fixture of the office, and plant in Roseau Minnesota, and even gave some tours at the Polaris experience museum. He was often seen walking through the offices and plant in Roseau.
Since the beginnings of Polaris in 1954, things have become about so much more than snowmobiles. Johnson’s company had its first billion dollar year in 1995, and extended its production to ATV’s, side-by-sides, watercraft, motorcycles and more, which has led to it becoming the nearly 5-billion-dollar business it is today.
David Johnson passed away on October 8th, 2016, at his home in Roseau, Minnesota. Funeral services will be held for David on Saturday, October 22nd at the Roseau High School Gym.
David enjoined riding snowmobile for his entire life. Although he is gone, his passion, his kindness towards people, and innovative ability will live on in the stories, and hearts of outdoor enthusiasts around the world.
It seems fitting to close with a quote from a full page ad that Polaris created in David’s honor, when he retired in 1988, “Thanks David, it would have been tough sledding without you.”