“Never say, ‘I’d never do that,'” Harry Harrison tells his grandchildren often.
“When I graduated from high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was only sure of one thing, ‘I don’t want to come back to Wadena, Minnesota, and work at Mason Brothers. That was the one thing I knew.”
Harry left Wadena and his job at Mason Brothers for a short stint to get an accounting degree and start working at an accounting firm in Minneapolis. But one month into that job, Harry’s father, Chuck Harrison, had a heart attack, which brought Harry to return to work at Mason Brothers the following day. Six years later, in 1962, Harry’s father died and Harry took over operation of the wholesale grocery business at 28 years old. He’s been there ever since, working in groceries for 70 years.
“After working under my dad for six years, I was prepared probably as much as you could be,” Harry said. “But back then our company was a little smaller,” he said with a laugh.
Mason Brothers got its start in 1920 with a traveling coffee salesman named Harold Mason, and his brother Victor (Doc) Mason. They were Harry’s great uncles, but they treated Harry as a grandson and Chuck as their son, as neither Harold nor Doc had children.
Harold and Doc started expanding the business in a building located next to Peterson Biddick on the Burlington Northern rail. From the get go the focus was on dry groceries, tobacco and candy. The building remained there until it burned to the ground in 1968.
Mason Brothers built a new 40,000 square foot warehouse that was completed by the end of 1968. The expansions led to another surge in growth through the 1990s.
From Jan. 1, 1969 to Jan. 1, 1979, Mason Brothers grew 400%. The company then grew 100 percent in the next five years. This growth rate was enhanced by early computerization in 1971 along with the closing of other small wholesalers during the 1970s.
In 1974, Mason Brothers purchased its first tractor trailer rig. It had been using only straight trucks up unto this point.
Mason Brothers took on an extensive dairy program in 1977 with Land O' Lakes dairy. They later added additional lines.
In 1979, fresh meat was added followed in 1986 by frozen foods.
In 1995, Mason Brothers went into the bakery business known as Abby's Bakery, named after Harry Harrison's granddaughter. The 12,600 square foot facility, with 30 employees, bakes fresh product daily.
In January 2000, Harry retired as president and CEO of Mason Brothers. Harry and his previous wife, Rosemary, sold the company to their sons, Jeff and Ric Harrison.
2003 saw the addition of an exclusive all-natural, locally raised beef product with the Heartland Farms label.
The original facility has gone through seven additions. It is now more than 185,000 square feet, housing more than 18,000 items and 18 dock doors for shipping and receiving. There is also a USDA-inspected meat packing area where meat is further processed in case-ready packages.
The secret to success
One of the best things Harry said he did was open a grocery store in Moorhead called the “Black Market.” The second best thing he did, was to close the Black Market 11 years later. It was a good learning experience, but probably not the best name choice. What had some real staying power was a focus on quality staff and technology.
“The quality of employees that I had … we were like a family,” Harry said.
Harry noted some long-time employees that were a part of the growth. Lucille Belch, Dixie Murray, Don McIntire and John Beringer all worked over 40 years for the company. The company is known for a long list of long-time employees and these days stay busy hiring.
In all the years of working at Mason Brothers, Harry said he can only recall one employee he had to fire.
Harry also noted it was computers that pushed the business forward. Mason Brothers was one of the first in Wadena to have them.
From a dry goods grocery distributor 100 years ago to a distributor of almost anything you could expect to find in a grocery store, Mason Brothers continues to grow to meet the needs of its customers.
“Mason Brothers today, they go out so far that they have to send two drivers (due to federal laws),” Harry said speaking about some of the routes. Today Mason Brothers delivers in and around Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. It’s a bit beyond the business's beginnings when the focus was mostly on keeping the numerous neighborhood grocery stores stocked. Harry recalls about nine neighborhood groceries in and around Wadena in his early days.
Harry described the challenges of continuing to grow the business and stay competitive as a difficult field. It’s a landscape he plans to stay a part of “as long as the good Lord lets me.”
At 85, he said he’s had a very healthy life. From working 70 years at Mason Brothers, there was just one time he took a sick day due to an issue with his vision.
While the company has been Harrison owned for most of the 100 years, Harry said they kept the Mason Brothers name, which was a good decision in his mind. Harry maintains an office at Mason Brothers, which he frequents in between regular trips to the golf course, and on hunting and fishing excursions.
Harry looks over family photos often, recalling the generations of people that never would have been in his life had his father not had that heart attack when he did. It’s possible he would have followed his plans of never returning to Wadena. Mason Brothers could have vanished from the scene even before reaching 40 years in business.
Instead, the business pushes forward under the direction of President and CEO Ric Harrison.