News of Mills Fleet Farm sale unnerves hometown

Mills Fleet Farm
Mills Fleet Farm is based out of Brainerd, and has its flagship store across the river in Baxter. The company employs hundreds locally and 6,000 people nationally.
Kelly Humphrey | Brainerd Dispatch via Forum News Service

The Mills family built a Midwest retail empire selling flannel shirts, farm tools and firearms. Now the family is looking to step away from their 36 Fleet Farm stores, unsettling some residents in the Brainerd area.

Mills Fleet Farm employees were told last week the company is looking for buyers. In an interview with the Brainerd Dispatch Wednesday, Stewart Mills III confirmed the family-owned company is up for sale.

Baxter Mayor Darrell Olson was taken aback by Wednesday's news. Fleet Farm is based out of Brainerd, and has its flagship store across the river in Baxter. The company employs hundreds locally and 6,000 people nationally.

Olson is concerned new ownership could mean layoffs.

"They employ a lot of people," he said.

Stewart Mills III, who lost a 2014 bid to unseat Congressman Rick Nolan, said selling is the best thing for his family's company. Fleet Farm has been expanding steadily by one or two stores a year. A new owner with deeper pockets could build as many as three or four new stores a year. That was the official reason Mills gave to the Dispatch.

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University of St. Thomas business professor Dave Brennan said there are generally two options in a sale like this. Either the company is bought by an investment group and run under the same banner with only small changes, or it's sold to a competitor and dissolved.

Olson said even small changes will be felt deeply. He said the Brainerd-Baxter area has a soft spot for Fleet Farm. He bought a lot of camping supplies there over the years, and always felt at home walking through the store. He said most people did.

"One of my family members went to Fleet Farm for his wedding registry," Olson recalled, "He said, 'if it's not at Fleet Farm, I don't need it.'"

Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Killian said that loyalty was nurtured slowly by three generations of the Mills family.

The first Stewart Mills built the original Fleet Farm store 60 years ago in Marshfield, Wis., but the company headquarters was quickly moved back to Brainerd, the family's hometown.

"You went to church with them and your kids played with their kids," Killian said. "You saw them at the grocery store."

The Mills family also gave a lot to local charities. Last Christmas, Salvation Army Brainerd office manager Linda Loftis said the Mills family cut them a check for more than $20,000.

Killian hopes new owners will nurture a similar connection. But at this point, that's not clear, even if the chain remains unchanged.