Racine, Wis. (May 18, 2018) – Ask Helen Johnson‐Leipold about success, and she is quick to steer the conversation toward the people who work at the businesses she leads.
“We have incredible people who love what they do,” Johnson‐Leipold said. “Ultimately, they are the ones delivering.”
Spend some time with her and you quickly realize she has infectious energy and passion for the organizations she runs.
You also realize she is fiercely competitive, doesn't shrink from making tough decisions and sets high performance standards – including for herself.
Johnson‐Leipold is chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Johnson Outdoors Inc. and chairman of the board of Johnson Financial Group. She is also chairman of The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread and serves on the board of S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. and The Prairie School.
She is the 2018 Harvard Business School Club of Wisconsin Business Leader of the Year. She is the 50th recipient of the annual award, which will be bestowed Monday night at a dinner at the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.
The award “celebrates an inspirational Wisconsin executive who has made significant contributions to both his or her organization and the community at large,” according to the Harvard Business School Club of Wisconsin.
Johnson‐Leipold has more than 35 years of business experience, starting with advertising at Foote Cone & Belding‐Chicago. That was followed by a 15‐year career at S.C. Johnson in various business leadership roles.
Johnson‐Leipold, 61, became chairman and CEO of Johnson Outdoors in 1999, adding the title of chairman of Johnson Financial Group in 2004.
Upbeat, pleasant and at times self‐deprecating, Johnson‐Leipold is part of the legendary Johnson family, generations of which have built a global consumer products powerhouse from humble beginnings in Racine.
S.C. Johnson, the maker of brands such as Off! and Pledge, is the largest of the family's businesses.
Johnson‐Leipold operates the only publicly traded portion of the Johnson businesses, with Johnson Outdoors.
The outdoors company manufactures and markets products across four categories: watercraft, marine electronics, diving and outdoor gear.
Johnson Outdoors' brands include, among others: Old Town canoes and kayaks, Ocean Kayak and Necky kayaks, Carlisle paddles, Minn Kota motors, Cannon downriggers, Humminbird marine electronics, Scubapro dive equipment, Silva compasses, Jetboil personal cooking systems, and Eureka camping and hiking equipment.
In fiscal 2017, Johnson Outdoors earned a profit of $35.2 million on sales of $491 million. The company has 1,100 employees, has 20 facilities worldwide and sells products in 80 countries.
The company's annual earnings have more than tripled since 2015.
The outdoors is a passion of Johnson‐Leipold's, something passed down from her father, the late Samuel Johnson Jr.
“We will not compromise on quality, ease of use and reliability,” Johnson‐Leipold said, talking about products made and sold by Johnson Outdoors.
These days, an over‐stressed population is always plugged in. That has tended to crimp the opportunities people have to experience “the awe of the outdoors,” Johnson‐Leipold said.
That creates challenges and opportunities for an outdoors business.
“We have to be aware of that and cater to that,” Johnson‐Leipold said. “You have to know the consumer.
You've got to be at one with the consumer.” “Every touchpoint with our outdoor consumers must demonstrate intimate understanding of who they are, what they want, what they expect and what they need for a great outdoor experience from start to finish,” Johnson‐Leipold said in the company's 2017 annual report.
That means being aware that consumers' acceptance of technology is growing almost exponentially.
“Technology has a role in every one of our businesses,” Johnson‐Leipold said. “Technology is key to our business.”
So is persistence and an ability to make difficult decisions that are in the best interest of the company's long‐term well‐being.
“Even in challenging times, you have to be upbeat, but you have to make the tough decisions,” Johnson‐Leipold said.
Some of those challenging times occurred a decade ago when Johnson Financial Group's Johnson Bank, like so many others across the U.S., was stung by the financial crisis and subsequent recession.
The Racine bank lost money from 2009 through 2011, with the worst being a $220.2 million loss in 2010.
In 2012, the principal owners of Johnson Financial Group – members of the Johnson family – opted to invest $235 million of their own money to recapitalize the bank rather than take on outside investors.
“I lost many, many nights of sleep,” Johnson‐Leipold said.
She brought new leadership to the bank. And, in 2016, Johnson Financial purchased Cleary Gull Advisors Inc., a Milwaukee investment advisory and wealth management firm with $2.1 billion of assets under management.
“We are always looking for acquisitions,” Johnson‐Leipold said.
A new leader, James R. Popp, a banking industry veteran and former executive at Chase Bank, took over as CEO of the Johnson Financial Group at the beginning of this year.
Johnson Bank is the second‐largest bank headquartered in Wisconsin, behind only Green Bay's Associated Bank.
Values are a major focus
Perhaps most important to Johnson‐Leipold is staying true to her family's values.
The values‐based philosophy includes building into the business a focus on making the world a better place.
Johnson‐Leipold says operating businesses with a clear set of values and a higher purpose helps attract and retain the most talented people.
“The values that we have, they attract great talent,” she said. “They value a company that has a bigger purpose.”
“We get people who could get a bigger job in bigger companies. They choose to be here because of what we value,” she added.
“It's always about people. It's always about having a positive impact. That's our responsibility,” she said. “Profitability is a means to a different end. It allows you to employ more people and make sure you are doing the right thing for the communities in which you do business.”
“We are growing because we have great people, talent and innovation.”
She speaks of measuring time by generations rather than fiscal quarters.
“We're here for the long term, and we will build shareholder value over time,” Johnson‐Leipold said. “For the most part, I think we've delivered on that.”
“I'm at a point in my life where I really do appreciate the opportunity.”
Article by Joe Taschler | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel