The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 3, 2013

Krohn: Fleet Farm taking its time

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

— Mills Fleet Farm has been in a brisk expansion mode following a recessionary slowdown.

Maybe that will bode well for Mankato.

Just last year Mills, with 22 large stores, opened or announced new stores in Cambridge and Carver in Minnesota and in Ankeny, Iowa.

For Mankato area residents, Fleet Farm is one of those stores often mentioned at the end of the sentence: “I wish we had a .....”

It’s also been assumed they’d eventually get to the Mankato market. The biggest tip-off: They already own one of the most prime pieces of real estate in Mankato — the field bordered by Highway 14, Highway 22 and Victory Drive North, across the road from Menards.

It also makes sense geographically, Fleet Farm has stores in an area that arcs from St. Cloud down to Owatonna and throughout the Twin Cities and Rochester areas. Mankato’s the one large regional center in the state without one.

Mills Property Inc. of Brainerd has owned the land for several years. Mills Property is the development arm of Mills that builds new Fleet Farm stores.

Sitting on the land comes at some cost. According to county land records, the company paid $26,000 in property taxes last year on the 45-acre parcel. The land has a taxable valuation of $3.3 million.

If and when Fleet Farm comes, they would likely use most of the parcel. Their recently built stores each take up nearly 40 acres.

The company has stores in North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin that sell clothing, furniture, housewares, hunting and fishing equipment, electronics, vehicle parts and accessories, farm supplies and more. They usually also have a convenience store/gas station and car wash.

The business is owned by 84-year-old twin brothers Stewart and Henry Mills and began when Stewart bought an auto store in Brainerd in 1922 and opened the first fleet store in Wisconsin in ’55.

The “Fleet” name has a meaning that is long forgotten to most today.

There were once so-called “blue laws” across the country that regulated commerce in a variety of ways, including forcing businesses to be closed on religious days. At the time, everything was sold at retail and there was just one opportunity where a business was allowed to discount things — if it was sold to an account who had a “fleet” of five or more vehicles.

The Millses were among the first to realize they could build a discount store business aimed at farmers and small businesses that owned multiple vehicles. Those with fleet accounts were given a small orange membership card. The orange color — along with a silo motif — still adorn the Mills Fleet Farm stores. 

Tim Krohn is a Free Press staff writer. He can be contacted at 344-6383 or tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com.