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Helen Johnson-Leipold loves coming to work each morning. Her corner office on the third floor of The Johnson Building in downtown Racine overlooks Lake Michigan. Abstract, nature-themed art hangs on the walls; framed family photos are on full display; a collection of awards and plaques are kept in the corner.
As head of Johnson Outdoors and chair of Johnson Financial Group, she’s the fifth-generation – and first female – family leader of one of the most prominent business empires in Wisconsin. Her brother H. Fisk Johnson, 63, leads the family’s flagship entity, S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., where Johnson-Leipold, 65, sits on the board as an heir. The three companies are legally separate entities.
Rising to chairman and CEO of Johnson Outdoors in 1999 and chairman of both Johnson Financial Group and The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread in 2004, Johnson-Leipold succeeded her father in all three roles. She credits the late Samuel Johnson – as well as her mother, the late Imogene “Gene” Johnson – for taking the family business to new heights while staying true to core values that prioritize putting people before profit, investing in local communities and leaving the world better than how you found it.
In an exclusive interview with BizTimes associate editor Maredithe Meyer, Johnson-Leipold reflected on how those values have shaped her own views and decisions on innovation, talent attraction and the next generation of workers. The following is a transcript of portions of their conversation:
BizTimes: What’s the brief history of your family’s business empire, and what has sustained it through multiple generations?
Johnson-Leipold: “Things have changed over generations, and you have to change, that’s part of why we’re successful, but what’s so exciting and inspirational to me is it’s all about why we do what we do and our values. That’s been the consistency, that north star that’s come all the way through.
“We started with parquet flooring, which was the initial business, founded by my great-great grandfather in 1886. Pretty soon, he was making paste wax – in his bathtub – to keep those floors looking great. It wasn’t long before he was selling a lot more wax than floors, and the company became known as Johnson Wax. He opened our first international companies in Canada and the U.K. and gave us our entrepreneurial spirit.
“Then came my great-grandfather, in 1904, who believed in the power of marketing and advertising to make our waxes a must-have household product. More importantly, he believed our people were our greatest asset and instituted 40-hour work weeks, paid vacations, health insurance, life insurance and profit sharing many years before those became the norm.
“Next came my grandfather, in 1928, who was the first scientist in the family. During the Great Depression, he refused to lay off any of his employees and found creative ways to get everyone paid. He also launched Glo-Coat for washing and waxing floors. This was a significant launch in the life of our company, one that kept us on the map and gained the profits to get through the hard times. He used the profits from that single product to erect an iconic new headquarters designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, expand employee benefits and travel to South America for the first-ever sustainability audit – he wanted to go check on the carnauba palms that we made our products from.
“Then came my father, Sam, who took the helm in 1965 as the fourth-generation family leader of the business. While dad benefitted from the wisdom and contributions of the first three generations, he brought a new and exciting vision to the enterprise – a vision that put us on the path of continuous innovation, continuous improvement and sustainable growth.
“In 40 years, Dad grew the family business 40 times over. … He transformed a single wax company into three thriving enterprises, all different and independent legal entities in different industries but with a common thread of core values. I have the honor of running the two businesses that my father started in the 1970s. I worked at S.C. Johnson for 15 years, which was a great experience, and I learned a lot, but then coming (to Johnson Outdoors in 1999) and having my dad’s office right above mine, I got to run up there and ask him for help when he was around, and it was great to have that opportunity.
“Now, the ‘how’ to keep a company strong and successful verses the ‘why,’ is what all of us in business struggle with every day. There are no silver bullets, but I think we’re still here because of the focus on people and the focus on values. You think back, and there’s been world events and events in the U.S. that have devastated some businesses, but when you have employees that really care about the company, and they care about what happens to the company, then they stick with you through the good times and the bad times – and I think that’s when it shows through. I have had my fair share of bad times, but I have a great team and people who want us to win and that, I think, is our secret weapon: great people.”
On the birth of Johnson Financial Group
“I love the story of why Johnson Financial Group was founded in the first place – it was a little different than consumer packaged goods, but that was a reflection of my father. He was really into the community and the importance of family businesses to the health of communities. He always talked about how you can’t have a healthy environment inside the company unless you have a healthy environment outside the company.
“So, when small banks were being acquired by the big banks, he saw that happening and felt these (family-owned) companies needed a financial partner. He saw as the banks got bigger and became regional and potentially national, they didn’t pay as much attention to the smaller communities and local customers. He decided to start a bank, in a trailer on 3 Mile Road and North Main Street.
“The fact that Johnson Financial Group was created with the specific objective of providing an important service to our local businesses as the number one priority has been a unique source of strength and inspiration in helping us to attract excellent talent and continue to grow over more than 50 years. Yes, you have to make money to grow, but that’s not why you do it. That’s a means to a different end.”
BizTimes: How has your father’s founding vision for Johnson Financial Group translated into today’s business climate?
Johnson-Leipold: “We are not a family business that got stuck in tradition. Each generation was expected to bring fresh thinking and understand our consumers and markets intimately as they changed over time and use those insights to evolve and stay ahead of our competitors. Every generation has a different situation, and what I characterize this generation as is rapid change and digitization.
“When we talk about the younger generation, I think it’s exciting that the younger generation is bringing new and different things, but they also expect different things, and that’s an opportunity to be out ahead… The more (the next generation of customers) has different needs, the more opportunity there is for innovation and to provide the service that they need, which is now that hybrid between digital and in-person (banking). We have to adapt and change, and some of that is not easy, but it does provide an opportunity because we have to be so in touch with our customers and all the data you have on your customers. But it’s about knowing more than you see. It’s more about, ‘What’s their story? What are their needs? What’s their family situation?’ Because that’s when you can really provide that customer service.
“I think we do have a competitive advantage in that human connection, but you have to have that digital piece of it because accessibility and the ability to ‘do it right now’ is part of that. … That mix is what we have to do really well. And I think that’s what you can’t get from the larger financial institutions.”
On the role of innovation
“I love innovation, too, and I consider (Sam Johnson) a master of innovation. Dad created the plastic boat market, which is still growing after all these years, and Old Town remains a leader still today.
“Innovation is in everything we do. It’s (customer) service on the Johnson Financial Group side; its equipment and product on the Johnson Outdoors side. We want to do things that make people’s lives better, so you have to be always at one with your customer and thinking about the needs that would make their lives better. It’s great. I love the products in (Johnson Outdoors) and thinking about getting people into the outdoors. It’s life changing, especially now after COVID (lockdowns), people have to get out there.
“And in financial services, it’s how do we make our customers lives better and how do we understand what they want long term and help them get there? The more we can provide that service, the more we have done what we’re here to do.
“The great thing is it all fits together. The purpose, the values, the focus – it all works together. It took a while for me to figure that out, and (leading two companies) is a lot of work, but that’s why the purpose is so important.”
BizTimes: Tell me more about what it was like working with your father. What are some of the personal leadership lessons he passed along as you succeeded him?
Johnson-Leipold: “It is an honor to be able to be part of these companies that he started, and his life lessons were very consistent with what we do at work. I give my mother a lot of credit as well; she was very much the kinder, gentler influence on him.
“One key lesson was the long-term view: The fact that with the decisions we make today, we have to consider the impact on tomorrow. We have a purpose to keep our company healthy and thriving so we can continue to have a positive impact on the lives of more people and more communities for generations to come. That’s all about sustainability, and that means every generation has to give back more than they take because, otherwise, there is no long term. When you’re making decisions for the good of the long term versus today and tomorrow, it changes everything. … And you want the people that you hire to also be thinking about the long-term health of your customers.
“You’ve got to live with the decisions you make. It impacts lives, it impacts communities, and it makes you think about things that way. I think, also, employees like to have some job security and certainty that things aren’t going to change, that (the company) won’t be sold tomorrow. … It truly is about people. And when I think about my dad, he was always telling me, ‘You hire the best people around you, and our job is to keep the principles, the values, the vision.’
“If you talk about sustainability or sustainable development, my father would say, ‘Until every individual cares enough to lend a hand, you will not have sustainability.’ And he talked about how throwing money at something doesn’t solve the problem because when the money is gone, (the solution) stops, and that’s not sustainable. You’ve got to get people wanting it and everybody caring, and then you start making decisions about the future. Everybody, both companies and individuals, have to have a role, and everyone should think about giving back more than they take. That’s the only way we’re going to be sustainable long term because otherwise, we’re going in the wrong direction.”
BizTimes: How are you adapting to shifts in what the next generation of employees want out of work?
Johnson-Leipold: “In a very short period of time, what used to be not talked about as much – purpose, the workplace environment, belonging and flexibility – is now very much front and center. The younger generation is looking for something more than a job. And that’s really good because that’s where companies need to go. One of the things Dad talked about is how important companies are to helping communities. It can’t all be done by individuals, it can’t all be done by the government, but we all have a responsibility. And when there’s external pressure on top of that to show that you’re doing those things, it’s great because we do have to play a role. … That evolution is right in front of us, and I think the pressure from the younger generation has given us a wake-up call, which is good because we have to do some things if we want to keep this world for generations to come, and a lot of work needs to be done.
“Trust is so important. Trust means you can communicate, and you don’t have to be guarded, and you can throw out ideas, and you don’t get judged by them. That’s where inclusivity is so important to innovation. I have to figure it out with the next generation and what it means to them for us to be inclusive, but in order to be innovative and to be thinking about the future, you have to be very open to different perspectives, and that’s where all the new ideas come from. … It’s great that there is so much more diversity in the next generation – we benefit from that. It’s an exciting time.
“(The next generation) just looks at things differently, and that’s what we need. That’s who we are providing services to. I love the research on the next generation because the segmentation is so different, and that’s what you would die for because it’s so different than us that their needs are all different, and that’s the challenge and the opportunity.”
BizTimes: What do you see as some of the most pressing issues facing southeastern Wisconsin, and how can your companies be part of the solution?
Johnson-Leipold: “In general, making sure that we have communities that are great for young professionals because we do need to attract talent, and especially when (young professionals) potentially have remote (work) on their mind. We need to get people here, so everything we can do to enhance the communities that we do business in is a priority. And again, the health of the outside community is reflected in the health of the company’s internal environment.
“The other issue is education. We do invest in education, but I think having great educational systems for the children of our employees and for the community is critical long term. That’s been a pressing issue for a long time, and it’s something that we get involved in, but it’s about making sure that the resources are there for all walks of life, and we have work to do in that. … Johnson Financial Group is very involved in the Boys and Girls Clubs, and (other organizations) that help our next generation really get the resources they need to be the next employees of our companies.
“At The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, the philosophy is if you get people in a room and they get to know each other as people – before they start debating and having discussions on issues – then with that respect and connection, you get to a much better place. I think we need to have more human interaction and understanding, and that connection is so critical. When you connect, you understand where people are coming from, you understand the context, and then maybe we can make more progress.
“The health of our smaller businesses in communities like Racine can do a lot for the communities. You get more roots, and you get more involvement, and you get more employees who come to the communities and want to see things get better. And I think Wisconsin can do that – that’s who we are. But there’s a lot of work to do.”
BizTimes: Your son Connor Leipold joined Johnson Outdoors last year as manager of corporate strategic branding. What’s it like working with him?
Johnson-Leipold: “Connor is learning, and he likes to come to work in the morning, which I am very excited about. … I’m hesitating a little bit because I can’t speak to other members of the next generation, but … it’s great that (the sixth generation is) proud of the companies, and whatever they aspire to do is all good. But Connor has done great. … It’s great to have family in the business, and I loved being here when my father was upstairs and just being able to ask him advice. You learn a lot.”
Johnson Family Businesses
S.C. Johnson Privately owned Industry: Household products Year founded: 1886 Founder: Samuel Curtis Johnson Current leadership: Fisk Johnson, chairman and chief executive officer Employees: 13,000 SALES: $11 billion in 2020 (Forbes)
Johnson Financial Group Privately owned Industry: Banking Year founded: 1970 Founder: Sam Johnson Current leadership: Jim Popp, CEO; Helen Johnson-Leipold, chairman Employees: 1,200
Johnson Outdoors Publicly traded, family-controlled Industry: Producer of outdoor recreational products Year founded: 1970 Founder: Sam Johnson Current leadership: Helen Johnson-Leipold, chairman and CEO Employees: 1,400 Sales: $751.7 million in 2021
Five generations of Johnson family business leaders
First Generation Samuel Curtis Johnson Founder of S.C. Johnson
Second Generation Herbert F. Johnson Sr.
Third Generation H.F. Johnson Jr.
Fourth Generation Sam Johnson JR. Founder of Johnson Financial Group And Johnson Outdoors
Fifth Generation Helen Johnson-Leipold Chairman of Johnson Financial Group Chairman and CEO of Johnson Outdoors H. Fisk Johnson III Chairman and CEO of S.C. Johnson