40th Anniversary: Interview with the Founder

John Lawrence and his partner, Sam Milnark, created a magazine and helped build an industry

By Paul Deffenbaugh

John Lawrence

Very early on, MBN established strong relationships with the Metal Building Manufacturers Association (MBMA) and the Metal Building Dealers Association (MBDA), which today is the Metal Building Contractors and Erectors Association (MBCEA).

The two men saw the rise in importance of the metal component industry and changed the magazine name to Metal Construction News (MCN) in November 1984. In January 1985, they debuted its sister publication, Metal Architecture, taking the message of metal construction to the design industry. Later that decade, they created a product directory, which is now the Metal Directory and Resource Guide.

Lawrence and Milnark were instrumental in founding the Metal Construction Association (MCA) in 1983 and, through the pages of the magazine in both editorial and advertising, they promoted the industry tirelessly. Milnark passed away in 2003, but Lawrence carried on the legacy until his retirement from day-to-day operations in 2008. Both men are Metal Construction Hall of Fame honorees.

This summer, we sat down with Lawrence, CEO of Modern Trade.

How did you get the idea of the magazine?

We were working for another publisher at the time, and we were in Southern Michigan when we saw this new building. It was a firehouse and municipal building and it was a metal building system. We said, “Gee, this is kind of a neat system.”

We started talking about it and we traveled around to look at other buildings. There was a small magazine in the market, but not very big. That’s where the kernel of what we were trying to do got going. I was going to be the business partner, and Sam was going to handle editorial.

What was it like to get it going?

We got a list of potential subscribers, many of them members of MBDA. We sent out letters asking them to sign up and nearly all of them did.

The first issue we put out; Sam did the whole thing. He wrote all the editorial. He did the mechanical part of putting it together. He got it done. I had my doubts about whether he was going to have it done. Sam could get it done. He was very good.

Tina [Lawrence, John’s wife and treasurer of Modern Trade] typed out all 900 subscriber address labels. That first issue was a real success.

Why was it a success?

One of the things we had to do was heavily promote to metal building manufacturers, component people, and to anybody who made a product that went on a metal building. I think people were ready for it and needed a way of reaching the marketplace. And they saw that we had an overall vision of serving the whole market. There was a real need.

Why did you choose the tabloid size?

We did the tabloid size because we wanted something big and four colors. Something that was going to smack down and get the notice of the people we wanted the magazine to go to. That was the idea behind it. Looking around now, and some of these magazines that come in, they look like pamphlets. We wanted big ads and big editorial.

Why did you change the name?

We realized that there was a lot of uses of metal, and we wanted to identify more and more contractors. We thought changing the name was more appropriate to attract those contractors. And, we could bring the component people into the industry.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the market in the last 40 years?

It seems to me, overall, it was sending the steel industry over to China. We all know now that it was not the right thing to do. NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] was a bad, bad way to go. China became the foremost steel builder. The Indian companies are up there too.

But that was the idea, to send it over to two countries where they had a large population and labor was cheap. To my way of thinking, we should have never done it, but we did it.

What other big changes have you seen?

in the world when we started. But the industry has done a great job of promoting metal roofing. You see metal roofing everywhere now, right? We moved into our house in 1983 and in 1988 we put on a metal roof. It was a real rarity to see it then. People would stop by and come and look at that shiny, copper roof. We put 16-ounce copper up there and they thought it was gold.

Metal buildings have changed too. They’ve become more of an architectural product.

What was the high point of the last 40 years?

I think the high point was when the Metal Construction Association was born. We were very involved in that. When the association was founded, I thought, “Boy, we’re on our way now.” The association was charged with growing the industry for all of us.

A big element of growing the industry was the creation of METALCON. That was just a couple of years after the association started. METALCON did pretty well out of the gate.