Helen Johnson-Leipold is Chairman & CEO, Johnson Outdoors; Chairman, Johnson Financial Group; and the first woman in five generations to lead a Johnson Family Enterprise. She will deliver the Keynote Address at our Best Bosses Conference & Celebration on September 27, 2006. In Part 1 of this interview, she discusses how her family members use passed-down values to arrive at majority decisions on important business matters.
The July 2006 issue of Worth magazine called you the “glue” that holds S.C. Johnson’s fifth-generation family team together. How do you see your role within this family team?
We are a family, first and foremost, and that can make for some interesting team dynamics from time to time! We trust and respect one another, and we value each other’s opinion. And, we keep our values as a family and as family businesses front and central in our individual and collective business decisions. That means always doing what we believe is right for the long-term health of our companies and our people. No one’s role in the family is more important than another’s, and each of us is as responsible as the others for keeping those values alive for the next generation.
Within the Family Business Council established by your father, Sam Johnson, there is no chairman, and decisions are made by consensus. How does this work? What is a typical Council meeting like?
There’s no such thing as a typical meeting. Our Family Business Council includes the family and a small select group of family advisors. This is where we come together to really dive into issues and opportunities facing the enterprises individually and as a whole. When big, tough decisions need to be made, this is where we make them. If the family reaches a stalemate, then we turn to our family advisors to cast a single, deciding vote. It’s a democratic, majority rules process, and it works for us. Here’s why.
Although we support one another, and are committed to the same values, vision and goal, we are different people with different perspectives and ideas. Naturally, there are times we are going to disagree. The Family Business Council gives us a forum to discuss things openly and freely, and an agreed-to process to resolve any differences of opinion in private, not in public. This ensures consistent and united family leadership and clear, focused direction to our troops, which is so critically important.
When Dad was here, he would break the tie or make the call; we really didn’t have to negotiate the tough decisions among ourselves. Now we do. So we’re meeting more often and tackling a broader range of topics. We have a Family Office that helps facilitate the process and provides the expertise and support we need to help us reach the decision that’s right for us.
You and your family have had experience in planning business succession. What advice would you give other family business members who are looking to transition their businesses to the next generation of family members?
I think it’s important to have a passion for what you do in life, and you have to find that passion for yourself. That’s why I believe each generation must join the family business because they want to, not because they feel they have to. Dad and Mom [Imogene Johnson –Ed.] certainly never pushed nor prodded us. They exposed us to the company, involved us in what it was doing and let us find our way there. Of course, the company was the main topic of discussion at the dinner table, and Dad made it sound very exciting and very special. And, I know he really wanted us to take over the businesses. He also realized from his own experience that we had to join by desire, not by demand. Dad knew that along with the fun and excitement of the business, personal sacrifice and enormous commitment would be required.
Once the next generation finds their way into the family business, we believe it’s important for them to earn their way up – to prove they are capable of the job. Running a family business shouldn’t be a right or a privilege. You should be qualified to lead in order to be considered for leadership. There were four of us in the fifth generation, and Dad felt that no two members of the same generation should work at the same company at the same time, except in training. Two points of leadership are one too many in a family company. Today, I think we have a stronger partnership and four healthy and growing businesses because each of us is running a separate part of the enterprise. And, total commitment to the ultimate goal behind our family businesses is a requirement for us. That goal is to invest for the long-term and maintain family ownership, in lieu of short-term gain.
I understand the Johnson family has created internships for the sixth generation of family members to understand the business better before possibly joining it down the road. What are the three most important values you hope they’ll take away from this training?
That being the best is better than being the biggest; that the next generation matters more than the next quarter’s numbers; and that our special people are our greatest asset.
We’re excited to hear your keynote address at our Best Bosses Conference on September 27. Can you give us a preview of what you’ll be speaking on?
I’d like to talk about sustaining an entrepreneurial spirit from generation to generation. One of the secrets to our family business’ longevity is that every generation brought something new and original to the enterprise which made it better and stronger.