Joshua Johnson bought into his family's dealership group in 2006, shortly before the Great Recession. The company rode out that downturn, just as it had weathered two world wars, the Great Depression and two automaker bankruptcies.
"I firmly believe the only reason we survived [all that] was hard work and the collaboration of the people we employ," Johnson says. The latest recession accelerated his effort to strengthen Don Johnson Automotive Group by getting the managers of its three dealerships to pull together instead of competing with one another.
Johnson's great-great-grandfather, J.P. Johnson, started the business in 1915 in Star Prairie in northwest Wisconsin with franchises for Maxwell and Whippet, a small car line made by Willys-Overland. He later added Studebaker. His sons opened dealerships elsewhere in the state, selling General Motors brands. After World War II, their sons took over the business, which passed to Joshua's father, Don Johnson, in 1977.
"Like most dealers' kids, I grew up in the dealership," Joshua Johnson says. By age 18, he had his sales license. The family believed it was crucial for each new generation to spend time working outside the car business. So after graduating from Boston College, he joined General Mills Inc. as a category manager and consultant helping grocers expand shelf space so they could sell more cereal -- a job that entailed frequent relocation.
Two years and three cities later, he headed to Babson College for an MBA. Not long after his return to the family dealerships, two of the group's partners decided to sell. He bought them out in 2006 and went into business with his father, an arrangement that continues.
Jumping into the dealer role just before the recession was "a great education," he says. It helped that he already knew most of the employees. Some have worked there for 20 or 30 years; the average tenure is 10 years. Johnson says much of that loyalty stems from the family's policy of promoting from within. A former car detailer became a service director and a onetime salesman is now a parts manager.
"The recession is when our focus on dealership culture started to pay off," Johnson says. It enabled "candid conversations" and creative solutions for belt-tightening. Now the stores share inventory, resources and best practices.
These days, Johnson says, "My job is to act as mission control: provide resources and lend a hand when needed." He is also chairman of the Wisconsin Automobile and Truck Dealers Association.
Since 2006, Johnson has expanded the group's stable of franchises to eight from three. The group now sells all Detroit 3 brands except Cadillac and Lincoln. During that period, group revenue grew more than $10 million and vehicle sales jumped 40 percent to about 2,000 units last year. Net profit surged 46 percent in 2015 to six figures. His goal is to achieve double-digit revenue gains while maintaining an operating-profit margin of at least 3 percent.
Long term, Johnson's goal "is to create an organization that I can be proud to hand off to my daughter someday" if she chooses to become a dealer. His daughter, Piper, is 15 months old.