Johnson, George E. 1927–
George E. Johnson 1927–
From shoeshine boy to successful business executive, George E. Johnson began with a borrowed sum of $250, which he and his wife turned into the multimillion-dollar company known as Johnson Products. His firm, cited as an innovator in the beauty care products industry, was the first minority run business listed on the American Stock Exchange, in 1971. In addition, Johnson is the first African American to be elected as a director of the board of Commonwealth Edison Company.
George Ellis Johnson was born in Richton, Mississippi, on June 16, 1927. His father was a sharecropper and the family lived in a three-room shack. But life became even bleaker for the Johnsons in 1929 when George was just two years old. His parents separated. With her young son, Johnson’s mother moved to Chicago, where she found a job in a cafeteria making $16 a week. When he was still a small boy, Johnson shined shoes and collected bottles for cash to help his mother.
When he could, Johnson attended Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago. But he had to quit in the tenth grade to help out at home. He found work first as a full-time busboy and then became a waiter. In addition, at night he set pins in a bowling alley.
Johnson began the first step toward a business career when he began work with a Chicago-based firm called Fuller Products. It was founded by S.B. Fuller, another African-American entrepreneur. The company was in a small market at the time, making various types of cosmetics for the African-American consumer. Johnson worked his way into a position as a production chemist and developed a hair straightener for men.
In 1954, Johnson, now married to the former Joan Henderson, borrowed $250 from a finance company for a “vacation loan.” Instead of a vacation, however, Johnson and his wife took the money to establish their fledgling firm, Johnson Products. Their first, and for a time only, product was his hair straightener, Ultra Wave, which they sold from the back of their station wagon.
The new company was far from an instant success. The hours were long and the rewards were small. But as Johnson told Essence, “The JPC concept is ’united we stand, divided we fall.’” The Johnsons persisted, and in 1957 they added a new product, a line of Ultra Sheen
At a Glance…
Born George E. Johnson, June 16, 1927, Richton, Mississippi. Married Joan Henderson; children: four.
Career: Started Johnson Products, 1954; first African American company listed on major stock exchange, 1971; U.S. Postal Service, director; Indecorp Inc., chief shareholder.
Awards: Lincoln Center’s Humanitarian Service Award, 1972, Ebony magazine’s Black Achievement Award, 1978; Horatio Alger Award, 1980; Babson Medal, 1983; honorary degrees: Chicago State University, 1977; Fisk University, 1977; Tuskegee Institute, 1978.
Memberships: George E. Johnson Foundation, founder; first African American elected to board of directors of Commonwealth Edison.
Address: Office —100 E. Huron St., Apt 4802, Chicago, iL 60611-2940.
hair care products intended for use by professionals for African-American women. “At Johnson Products, the Black consumer does not take a backseat. She is not an afterthought as she is in general-market companies,” Johnson remarked to Essence.
Three years later, by 1960, Johnson had broken into the retail market. Five years later, the company offered Ultra Sheen no base crème relaxer. This was hugely successful for the company and a big breakthrough for black women because it gave them versatility in hair-styling that had not existed before.
The year 1971 marked a great achievement for Johnson and the company. Its stock was now listed on the American Stock Exchange, although the shares had already been traded in the over-the-counter market. This marked the first time that a company owned by an African American or other minority was traded on a major stock exchange. That same year, Johnson Products became the sole black advertiser to sponsor a nationally syndicated TV show: Soul Train.
Growth was just beginning for the new company. In the mid-1970s, Johnson’s expanding business occupied 220,000 square feet of new headquarters covering 23 acres on Chicago’s South Side. The Johnson Products Research Center boasted one of the country’s largest laboratories devoted exclusively to hair care products for blacks. Among the company’s well-known products are: Afro Sheen, Ultra Star, Classy Curl, Sultra Sheen Supreme, Soft Touch, Ultra Sheen’s Precise, and Bantu. Advertising campaigns always point to the special care and concern of the company for its consumers. One display proclaims: “We know we have the best cosmetics to enhance the beauty, appearance, and image of African American women at any age.”
During this time, things were going great for Johnson and his family. They owned a suburban home in Chicago, a farm, a home in Paris, a Jamaican vacation home, and two cattle ranches in Mississippi. They hosted numerous lavish parties and enjoyed the fruits of their labor. But trouble soon came, courtesy of the federal government.
In 1975 the Federal Trade Commision (FTC) began a crackdown on beauty products for Black consumers. Johnson Products was ordered to place warnings on its Ultra Sheen Permanent Creme Relaxer. Its white counterparts were forced to comply as well—almost two years after Johnson Products. But on the plus side, by early 1980, the company had expanded overseas to a manufacturing site in Nigeria, Africa. The company was also granted a U.S. patent for a new product, Precise, the first conditioning relaxer.
In the mid-eighties, Johnson Products posted losses in three fiscal years and bank debt was climbing. At home, tensions mounted and divorce papers were soon filed. As part of the settlement, Johnson gave his share of stock to his wife, Joan, and resigned as chairman. Family problems did not end there. Before he resigned, Johnson had named his son, Eric, as president. He also promised a high-level management position to his daughter, Joanie. Eric would resign in 1992 over this promise.
In 1993 Joan Johnson sold Johnson Products to the Ivax Corporation, a white-owned pharmaceutical company. Many, including Johnson himself, were outraged. Mrs. Johnson defended her decision in the Wall Street Journal, “It is not a concern. This is not a personal thing. It is a business decision, and I’m convinced it’s a good business decision.” Johnson vehemently opposed the sale. He told the Wall Street Journal, “I cannot live with this. But I guess I’ll have to.”
An opportunity arose in 1998 for Johnson to purchase back his company he began almost a half century ago. He told Crain’s Chicago Business, “It broke my heart when it sold. I really do want the opportunity to take it back and make it shine.” However, this did not happen and the product line was sold to another black-owned company, Carson Products. Carson Products was then purchased, by beauty and haircare industry giant, L’Oreal. However, in order to complete the acquisition of Carson Products, L’Oreal agreed to divest the Johnson Product line to another company, Wella AG.
Johnson became the chief shareholder of Indecorp Inc., which owned Independence Bank of Chicago and Drexel National Bank. He also married again, but this also ended in divorce. He and Joan remarried in 1995.
Through the years, Johnson has been a staunch backer of cultural and civil organizations. They include the Chicago Urban League, the Lyric Opera, the Junior Achievement of Chicago, and the Northwestern Memorial Hospital. In 1979, the Harvard Club honored him with a public service award for the George E. Johnson Foundation, which he founded. It funds educational and charitable programs for African Americans.
In 1980, Johnson was the recipient of the Horatio Alger Award. In 1983 Johnson was awarded the Babson Medal from Babson College in Massachusetts. He has also been given many other honors, including the Lincoln Center’s Humanitarian Service Award and a Black Achievement Award from Ebony magazine. He has received honorary degrees from Fisk University, Chicago State University, and the Tuskegee Institute.
Smith, Jessie Carney, and Joseph M. Palmisano, eds. The African American Almanac. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
The Complete Marquis Who’s Who, 2001.
Black Enterprise, June 1996.
Business Week, April 24, 1995.
Crain’s Chicago Business, April 27, 1998.
Drug Store News, February 19, 2001.
Essence, May 1980.
Jet, October 16, 1989.
Time, April 28, 1980.
The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 1993.
—Corinne J. Naden and Ashyia N. Henderson
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