2005 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
John L. Johnson ’74
When Johnny Johnson came to Carolina in 1970, the odds were against him. His parents were laborers and he was the first in his family to finish high school, let alone set his sights on college. A guidance counselor in Fayetteville tried to talk him out of applying to UNC. Luckily the head counselor encouraged him, met him at the high school on a Sunday, got his transcripts together and said, “We’re going to mail this.” Once he arrived on campus, Johnny was determined not only to do well himself but to help other black students. Those two attributes—his desire to succeed and his dedication to helping others succeed—became the hallmarks of his career.
He set a routine for himself, leaving the dorm at 8 in the morning and not going back until midnight. He’d go to empty classrooms and study; if he had a test, he’d start studying a week in advance. His good habits paid off when he graduated with honors and entered the master’s program it the business school. That program was so rigorous, he recalled, that the first year class petitioned the administration to reduce the workload. They said no, telling the students that’s how it would be out in what one professor called the R.W., the real world. Once Johnny himself got out into the R.W., he found he was well prepared to deal with it.
All through his years at UNC, says his long-term friend David Broaden, Johnny was “Mr. Business” on campus, the “go-to” guy. He tutored some of the basketball players, including Phil Ford ’78. Concerned about the high attrition rate among minority students, he decided to do something about it. “You can sit back and say there aren’t a lot of African-Americans in the program,” David said, “or you can say, hey, with a little help, more can get through the program.” Johnny formed a networking/mutual support group for black business and accounting majors that to this day keeps them connected with one another and helps them share experiences as their business careers evolve.
Johnny’s own career evolved rapidly. He went into banking and then became a corporate executive. All the while, with characteristic determination, he worked toward becoming an entrepreneur. David Broaden remembers the little Honda Civic Johnny bought as his first car. “Two big guys like we are, it was tough to get into the car,” he says. “But Johnny told people that sacrificing by buying a less expensive car would allow him to save up money for a business he wanted to go into.” Before long, Johnny was founder and president of the highly successful Johnson Automotive Group.
As he built his own success, he continued to build networks of mutual assistance: He founded the Beckley-Raleigh County Black Business Association in West Virginia and he became one of the foremost small business advocates in that state. He served on numerous boards and government committees, and he shared his knowledge by writing a book and business columns for his local paper.
From his student days at Carolina all through his own impressive business career, Johnny Johnson has dedicated himself to helping others succeed.