Managers are prohibited from building a home, even if they purchase the construction materials elsewhere. It’s a measure to prevent employee theft, John Menard once told the media. The penalty is termination.
Even minor building projects concerned him. On numerous occasions, former managers say, Menard hired private investigators to take photos when an employee added a deck or addition, then had internal examiners cross-reference the materials in the photos with items the employee had purchased, looking for products that had been stolen.
The most infamous casualty of this policy was Eldon Helget, a lumber yard manager for Menards’ Burnsville, Minn., store. Helget’s daughter was confined to a wheelchair and the narrow hallways in the Helget home made it difficult to get around. She was getting too big for her mother Linda to carry her up the stairs, and because the bathroom couldn’t accommodate her wheelchair, the girl had no privacy. When the Helgets could find no home that met their needs, they decided to build from scratch.
But Helget’s boss, Larry Menard, said there were no exceptions to the company rule. Helget, who had a stellar 13-year record with the company, could resign his post and take a lower-level job, Larry said. That meant a $15,000 cut in his $40,000 salary, but Helget still agreed.
The Helgets hired a contractor to build a ramp-equipped home, using building materials from another company. When John Menard heard about the deal, he fired Helget. The company notified Helget that if he ever showed up on its property again, he’d be arrested for trespassing.
“John would say, ‘Why make a rule if you’re not going to enforce it?’” Archibald recalls, adding “sometimes, you have to cut throats. That’s how business works.”
Helget’s story found its way into the Minneapolis Star Tribune.A columnist called Menards’ policy, “something exhumed from the Bronze Age with all its primitive logic intact.” The story continued a second day when a local lumberyard offered Helget a job. The Helgets were elated – until they discovered Eldon’s contract with Menards barred him from working for a competitor for a year.
This rule came from Menard’s concern that his trade secrets might be revealed. Indeed, he refused to hire former Home Depot or Lowe’s employees for fear the person might be a spy.
Linda Helget phoned Menard to plead with him to relent. “He said we could find a house in another town, but all our friends and family are here. He thought he was a real stud muffin the way he talked and I said ‘who are you to tell us where to live?’ I told him ‘someday I hope a train runs you over and cuts your legs off.’’
TheNational Enquirertrumpeted the story to the rest of the country. The Helgets filed a wrongful firing claim against Menards; their attorney Edwin Sissam took the Menard brothers’ depositions. Sissam had expected John Menard to be a sophisticated businessman in a wool suit. Instead, he got “a cowboy in jeans with his shirt partially unbuttoned and a chain around his neck,” he says.
“It was clear Mr. Menard is very, very secure in himself. His body language, his mannerisms, answering questions when he wasn’t asked; not answering them when he was,” Sissam says. “Most companies with an employee with a disabled daughter would want to be behind the family … But John Menard had this attitude, ‘Who the hell is telling me how to run my company?”
The Helgets took Menards’ second settlement offer, “somewhere between $1 and $50,000,” says a source close to the case, which was settled in 1992.