Johnson, Samuel Curtis (“Sam”)

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Johnson, Samuel Curtis (“Sam”)

(b. 2 March 1928 in Racine, Wisconsin; d. 22 May 2004 in Racine, Wisconsin), noted environmentalist, philanthropist, and innovative and visionary chief executive who effectively led and transformed the privately owned S. C. Johnson company empire into global prominence.

Johnson was one of three children and the only son of Herbert Fisk Johnson, Jr., chairman of S. C. Johnson and Son, and Gertrude (Brauner) Johnson. Johnson was the fourth-generation leader of the multibillion-dollar Johnson Family Companies. S. C. Johnson and Son (better known as Johnson Wax) was launched in 1886, when Johnson’s great-grandfather, Samuel Curtis Johnson, for whom Johnson was named, bought the parquet flooring business of Racine Hardware Company. In response to consumer demands, Johnson’s great grandfather began manufacturing a very successful floor wax. A policy of diversification of products steered the company into ultimately becoming one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-quality household cleaning, storage, and insect-control products; institutional products; financial services; and outdoor recreational products.

The corporate philosophy document formally written in This We Believe, crafted by Johnson in 1976, incorporates family traditions, accentuating good public relations, excellence in the workplace, and long-term commitment to the environment and to the communities in which the company operates. These principles were inspired by Johnson’s grandfather, who in 1927 stated, “The goodwill of the people is the only enduring thing in any business. It is the sole substance.... The rest is shadow!”

When Johnson was born his father was chairman and the third-generation son to head the family company. When Johnson was three, his parents divorced, and as he grew older, he craved more time with his father. Johnson lived at Wingspread in Racine during his teen years in the family home designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1941. After graduating from Asheville School, a boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina, he attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and graduated in 1950 with a BA in economics. He received an MBA from Harvard University in 1952, served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1952 to 1954, and married Imogene Powers on 8 May 1954. They had four children.

In his mid-twenties Johnson joined the company in 1954 as an aide to his father and was appointed the director of new products development. As the original wax business was on the decline, he was commissioned to create new alternatives. His first product was an aerosol insecticide that his father rejected because it did not represent a noticeable improvement over similar products already on the market. In 1956, however, Johnson produced the first nonwax product, the formula for Raid House and Garden Bug Killer, a water-based product that could safely be used on plants. Raid became one of the company’s best-selling products, paving the way for others. This breakthrough led to a number of new products—Glade, an air freshener; Pledge, a furniture polish; Edge, a gel-based shaving cream; and Off!, an insect repellent—significantly expanding the company’s product lines. Within a year these new products accounted for 35 percent of the company’s domestic sales. Johnson credited his father for demanding excellence and expecting only the best from him, and the experience of returning to the lab to create something of excellent quality taught him a great lesson. Johnson stated that “the pursuit of excellence was a part of his father’s whole makeup. He believed quality was not just in the product, but everything you did in business.”

Johnson’s initial contribution to the business was diversification of the company’s product line in the 1950s and 1960s. The company expanded by acquiring other companies and adding such household names as Windex (1993) and Ziploc (1998). A standard family tradition and expectation is that each Johnson generation would make a major contribution to the company’s growth. Johnson, therefore, moved aggressively to diversify the company and expand globally. Company revenue grew from $171 million in 1966 to over $7.4 billion in 2000, employing more than 28,000 people worldwide and operating in more than 110 countries.

In 1962 Johnson became international vice president of the company’s European business, whose profits had plunged that year. Shortly after, he was recalled to the home base in Racine and became president of the company at age thirty-seven after his father suffered a stroke in 1966. In 1967 he also became chairman of the board of directors and chief executive officer (CEO), responsibilities he held until 1972, when he gave up the presidency. He remained the company’s chairman and CEO until 1988. He served as chairman only from 1988 to 2000, when he retired.

In the 1970s Johnson began diversifying the S. C. Johnson company, which, over the decades, became four different companies—the parent company, S. C. Johnson: A Family Company, a leading global manufacturer and marketer of household products; Johnson Financial Group (1970), a global financial services company; Johnson Outdoors (1987), a public company supplying innovative outdoor recreational products; and Johnson Diversey (1999), a company serving business and institutional markets.

Under Johnson’s leadership the family’s global reputation for benevolence and generosity to employees, including the profit-sharing plan of 25 percent of the company’s earnings, and to the communities in which the company operated was well documented. The company gave 5 percent of its pretax profits to charities and education, a practice that continued at the time of Johnson’s death. Johnson was also committed to many civic projects and was a major contributor to the arts, including the Smithsonian Institution. Racine, the company’s birthplace, has been a special beneficiary. The company’s headquarters building, designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, is considered a great architectural accomplishment. Johnson played a central role in redeveloping and improving the downtown and lakefront areas of Racine. In 1984 Johnson and his family made a $20 million endowment gift to Cornell University. While Johnson served as chairman, the company contributed more than $200 million to charitable programs.

In 1986 the family empire celebrated its centennial. Johnson recommitted the company to stay the course it had traveled before by remaining family owned; developing useful, environmentally sound products; and giving employees a sense of being in a family that cares for them, thus creating loyalty to the company. Johnson’s leadership and commitment to quality, integrity, and respect for individuals caused his company to be hailed repeatedly by Fortune as one of the one hundred best places to work in America. Beginning in 1991 Johnson overhauled factories, consolidated international operations, increased the global advertising budget, and focused resources where they had a better chance of success.

In 2001 Johnson’s longtime advertising agency—Foote, Cone and Belding Communications in Chicago—created a series of national television ads featuring S. C. Johnson: A Family Company, in which Johnson took center stage as its amiable patriarch, talking about the strengths, innovation, and values of family-owned companies—the values that kept the family strong and vibrant for five generations. Johnson reinforced the idea that a prime requirement for a healthy family-owned company is to have a strong and independent board of directors: well-recognized professionals, high-level business people, and individuals who are not family members.

For decades S. C. Johnson built a reputation as an environmentally conscious company. In 1993 Fortune named S. C. Johnson one of the ten large manufacturers whose environmental records had improved the most. Johnson spent millions to sustain and protect the environment, setting tough environmental standards for his company and reducing pollution and waste. He voluntarily removed chlorofluorocarbons from aerosol spray cans in 1975, three years before the practice was regulated by the U.S. government. He was called corporate America’s leading environmentalist.

Johnson was a founding member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which advised world leaders at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1992 the United Nations Environmental Programme gave him a special Lifetime Environmental Award for leadership in protecting the global environment. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1993. In 1993 he was inducted into the prestigious U.S. Business Hall of Fame, followed in 1994 by the Charles A. Lindbergh Award. In 1995 he was presented with the René Dubos Environmental Award and in 2001 was honored as National Ernst and Young Master Entrepreneur of the Year.

Johnson served as chairman of the Executive Committee of Johnson Outdoors, director and chairman of Johnson Financial Group, director of the World Resources Institute, and chairman of the board of the Johnson Foundation. He also served on the board of governors for the Nature Conservancy from 1990 to 2000; served for twenty-three years on the board of trustees at the Mayo Foundation; and was Founding Chairman Emeritus of the Prairie School, a leading college-preparatory day school founded by his wife in 1965.

In 2001 Johnson released to the public the hour-long introspective documentary film Carnauba: A Son’s Memoir, which is a frank disclosure of a personal nature, detailing his remarkable triumph over alcoholism while still at the helm of the family business. Johnson said that the film was a way to speak to his own children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren about the companies and family history, including a painful relationship with his father. The film won national recognition for Johnson for his frank disclosures.

Apart from his work Johnson enjoyed his family and a host of outside activities, including bird-watching and such outdoor sports as fishing, hunting, and skiing. He was an avid photographer and frequently piloted a small amphibian plane. He was also qualified to fly jet airplanes and occasionally took the controls of one of the company planes during a flight. His associates affirm that he was comfortable in almost any social milieu and was not ostentatious, considering his wealth.

Throughout his life and with over thirty years at the helm of the family empire of 118 years, Johnson portrayed the values and accomplishments of what it meant for a leader to operate as a catalyst for the larger good. He was a warm, caring, friendly, and confident human being whose remarkable successful leadership established a model for others to follow. His greatest and proudest moment was handing over the leadership of the family businesses to the fifth generation as follows: H. Fisk Johnson III, chairman of S. C. Johnson; S. Curtis Johnson III, chairman of Johnson Diversey; Helen Johnson-Leipold, chairman and CEO of Johnson Outdoors as well as chairman of Johnson Financial Group and chairman of the Johnson Foundation; and Winifred Johnson Marquart, president of the nonprofit Johnson Family Foundation. “The one constant,” said Johnson, “is the family focus on the long-term success of the company.” Johnson died of stomach cancer at his home. He is buried in Mound Cemetery in Racine with his ancestors and relatives.

Sources about Johnson’s influence and leadership on his family’s businesses include the centennial issue of the company’s magazine, “One Hundred Years of Leadership,” Johnson Wax Magazine 1886–1986 (1986); and Samuel C. Johnson, The Essence of a Family Enterprise: Doing Business the Johnson Way (1988), published to commemorate the company’s centennial (the corporate philosophy document “This We Believe” is referenced in the book as Appendix III). Articles about Johnson include Linda Watt, “Coat of Family Philosophy Keeps Johnson Shining,” Chicago Tribune (18 Nov. 1985); James Ellis, “Sam Johnson Is ‘Going Public to Stay Private,’” Business Week (5 Dec. 1988); David Barboza, “At Johnson Wax, a Family Passes on Its Heirloom: Father Divides a Business to Keep the Children United,” New York Times (22 Aug. 1999); and David Barboza, “SC Johnson Promotes Corporate Family Values,” New York Times (13 Nov. 2001). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 24 May 2004) and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (30 May 2004). Carnauba: A Son’s Memoir (2001) is a documentary film that tells Johnson’s personal story.

Hope E. Young