The Postal Service carried Christmas surprises to the 35 people who deliver heat in the winter and cooling in the summer to downtown Omaha buildings.
They knew that their employer, Energy Systems Co., was being sold to a New Jersey corporation. That's the sort of change that can turn out badly for employees, who sometimes lose their jobs in such deals.
But the employees didn't know what their boss, Todd Johnson, CEO of Energy Systems' parent company, had in mind.
Johnson sent letters thanking them for what he views as their daily sacrifices and attached checks for amounts that varied by each person's longevity and service to the company.
“We treat our employees like family, and when we decided to step out of the business, we decided to share with every employee,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Running a business isn't always about the money. We couldn't run a business without people.”
Nobody loses a job, he said.
The $120 million sale, completed Dec. 31, makes NRG Yield Inc. of Princeton, N.J., the owner of a system that sends steam and chilled water through underground pipes to downtown Omaha buildings. The system replaces individual building utilities for some 80 downtown-area buildings with 14 million square feet of space.
Last month's company Christmas party turned out to be a farewell to ownership by Johnson's family because the sale was pending. Employees gave Johnson a plaque thanking him for his leadership.
Soon after, the letters went out.
“We let the mailman do the surprise,” Johnson said. “I thought there was no better way to say thank you than to write a personal note and attach a check. We sent them to their homes so Mama could get it, generally, and see how hard their husbands had been working.
“I've always been very respectful of those who sacrifice their time and talents to better the organization. They have to work weekends and holidays, come out in the middle of the night to make sure the plant is up and running.
“It's a great sacrifice they make to do their jobs, and I truly appreciate it.”
He declined to say how much the gesture cost or reveal the range of the checks, saying it would be unfair to the employees to make the numbers public.
He discussed the matter, reluctantly, by phone from Duluth, Minn., after a tip to a World-Herald reporter from a reader who heard about the bonuses and was impressed by the size of the checks.
Johnson agreed to talk partly because he thought other employers might follow the example.
“I hope more businesses think of their employees in the future,” he said. “I tried to be a good Samaritan and a good boss and do something that was unusual, clearly. Everyone got something very, very material for them making Energy Systems a world-class organization.
“It was the right thing to do, the Christian thing to do.”
David Woods, who retired in 2011 as president of Energy Systems, said the Omaha staff respects the Johnson family. “The parting was very, very nice,” he said. “Todd has always been very generous.”
One employee said Wednesday that the checks were welcome and came at a good time, with year-end expenses due. “He didn't have to do that,” another said.
The sale to NRG Yield ends a 28-year business connection between Omaha and Johnson, but his family ties will continue.
During the Great Depression, his grandfather, Reuben Johnson, worked for Omaha construction magnate Peter Kiewit on projects in Greenland, the Aleutian Islands and elsewhere.
Reuben's son, Troy, also worked for Kiewit. In 1956 the father and son started their own construction business in Superior, Wis., “with a brand-new wheelbarrow and a used pickup truck,” Todd Johnson said. “They were very hardworking folks.”
Back in Omaha, Northern Natural Gas started Energy Systems in 1968, building its first plant at 2152 Howard St.
When Northern's parent company, Enron Corp., left Omaha in 1985, the Johnsons bought Energy Systems and sent young Todd to Omaha to oversee the transition.
During one of his visits he ended up with food poisoning and spent at week at then-Clarkson Hospital. He shared a room with a man who later invited him to a volleyball game and spaghetti dinner in Dundee, where he met his future wife, Susan Hilburn, then a teacher at Bryan Elementary School.
“Omaha's a wonderful community,” said Johnson, who is on the board of directors of Omaha Performing Arts. “We just feel very, very good about Omaha. If I wasn't born in Duluth, I'd very likely be living in Omaha.”
The Johnsons and Energy Systems have supported a number of civic groups in Omaha, including a donation in 2012 to create a lounge in the Holland Performing Arts Center.
The company, which also operates Creighton University's utility building under a long-term lease, spent $20 million to build a new plant at 13th and California Streets near TD Ameritrade Park.
Energy Systems' most visible feature in Omaha is the 32,500-square-foot Omaha history mural on the side of the 13th Street building, paid for by the Kiewit Foundation.
“Absolutely I supported that, whatever we can do for the city of Omaha,” Johnson said. “What a home run. That's like Omaha's front door.”
A year ago, Johnson's company changed its name from Reuben Johnson & Son Inc. to Capstan Corp. Its businesses include construction, crane rental, commercial real estate services, building management, specialty engineering, specialized boats and a Lake Superior shipyard.
Johnson, 55, said he has had some health issues and decided that the time was right to sell Energy Systems.
“My first debt was to the city of Omaha, my second debt was to the customers and my third debt was to the employees,” Johnson said. “When I did a transaction, I wanted to make sure that I put it in good hands. I promised the employees that I would place them with a company that I would endorse.”
The new owner is a publicly traded company whose businesses include similar utility services in Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; San Francisco; San Diego; Phoenix; Princeton, N.J.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Dover, Del.
“They can bring a lot more to the table to make the franchise better than I could in terms of economies of scale,” Johnson said. He said he has known people at NRG Yield for more than 20 years because they are in the same business but not competitors.
“I was not out for the biggest buck,” he said. “I wanted to make sure to pass it on to an enterprise that was either Omaha-based or was sizable enough and knowledgeable enough that it could sustain the business for the city of Omaha.
“Now we've achieved that.”
World-Herald staff writer Michael Kelly contributed to this report.