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Johnson, Robert - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Robert Johnson, Social and Economic Impact

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Johnson & Johnson Company


Robert Wood Johnson was the head of the famous Johnson & Johnson Company, a supplier of health care and baby products founded by his father. He was known as a humane employer, a wartime administrator, an author, a philanthropist, and a liberal business leader. His name survives today not only in the company itself, but also in the philanthropic functions of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Personal Life

Robert Wood Johnson’s life began on April 4, 1893, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, home of his father’s Johnson & Johnson business headquarters. A son of Robert Wood and Evangeline Armstrong Johnson, young Johnson attended Lawrenceville School and Rutgers Preparatory School but did not attend college, choosing instead to begin working for his father at the age of 17.

Rising eventually to president and then chairman of the board, Johnson was dedicated to the company’s success and equally dedicated to the welfare of the employees. He declared in a 1947 speech, according to an article in Coronet magazine, that business should never forget the plight of ordinary workers. To ignore them, he said, “is as foolish as it would be to ignore public health, crime, and the need for education.”

Apart from his heavy business commitments, Johnson found time for a number of hobbies. He enjoyed flying, beginning with an old biplane in 1919, then an early monoplane, an autogiro, and later his own company plane. He also enjoyed tennis and hunting but preferred yachting, winning several cups in competition. He once raced and cruised from Hudson Strait to the Caribbean and on another occasion crossed the Atlantic to Spain.

Johnson also had a vital interest in Republican politics, once serving as the mayor of Highland Park, New Jersey. He felt that his experience in small-town politics taught him a great deal about human psychology; on one occasion, for example, he personally went to the home of a resident who had complained about uncollected garbage—and Johnson himself loaded up the garbage and took it to the town dump. Although he steadfastly refused to run for Congress in 1948, he maintained an interest in political issues throughout his life.

In addition to his business and political interests, Johnson believed in the importance of good works. A practicing Episcopalian whose religion was more than just a tradition, he worked with ministers, priests, and rabbis to improve management-labor relations. He received numerous awards throughout his life, among them the People to People Award from President Eisenhower (1957), the Gold Medal of Merit from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (1959), the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1958), and the Executive of the Year Award from the American College of Hospital Administrators (1965). He was a patron of the American Museum of Natural History and, most importantly, the initiator of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major supporter of health-related causes.

Those who wrote about Johnson during his lifetime portrayed an energetic man who constantly looked for new experiences. “The General,” as he was called after his wartime service, was well respected by colleagues and employees and had a strong devotion to duty. He was sometimes unconventional but had an engaging personality and a good sense of humor, which served him well even with political and business opponents. He is remembered today for his business successes and especially for championing small business and the rights of the individual.

Johnson lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and had three wives: Margaret Shea, Elizabeth Ross, and Evelyne Vernon, to whom he was married at the time of his death on January 30, 1968. He had a daughter, Sheila, a son, Robert W. Johnson Jr. and five grandchildren.

Career Details

As a son of the founder of Johnson & Johnson, young Johnson gravitated naturally toward his father’s company. Following the lead of Englishman Joseph Lister, who had identified airborne germs as sources of infection, the elder Johnson and his brothers had developed the first adhesive surgical plaster and tape and the first ready-made, sterile, sealed surgical dressings. The company filled a very real need. Before Lister’s discoveries, some hospitals reported postoperative mortality rates as high as 90 percent. Johnson & Johnson vastly improved products available for antiseptic surgery and post-surgical care, and the company fast became the best-known name in health care supplies in the United States. By the 1890s Johnson & Johnson was calling itself “The Most Trusted Name in Surgical Dressings.”

The younger Johnson spent several years as a youth doing hard mill work in various areas of the Johnson & Johnson factory, from the plaster shop to the adhesive tape department. The company continued to diversify during the early decades of the 1900s, buying a textile mill and adding the Band-Aid adhesive bandage and Johnson’s Baby Cream to its product line in the 1920s. After going on an around-the-world tour in the early 1920s, Johnson and his brother J. Seward Johnson convinced the company that it should look into selling their products in an international market. Soon Johnson & Johnson Ltd. was set up in Great Britain. Later, during Johnson’s tenure in executive positions, the company also expanded into Australia (1931), Sweden (1956), and Japan (1961).

Chronology: Robert Johnson

1893: Born.

1910: Graduated from Rutgers Preparatory School.

1918: Became vice president at Johnson & Johnson.

1920: Elected mayor of Highland Park, New Jersey.

1931: Became vice president and general manager at Johnson & Johnson.

1932: Became president of Johnson & Johnson.

1938: Started term as chairman of the board.

1942: Entered U.S. Army Ordnance Department.

1942: Promoted to brigadier general.

1943: Appointed chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corporation.

1943: Married third wife, Evelyn Vernon.

1944: First book, But, General Johnson, published.

1947: Or Forfeit Freedom was published.

1949: Robert Johnson Talks It Over was published.

1968: Died.

Johnson became a vice-president by the age of 25 and president of the company in 1932, replacing his uncle, James W. Johnson. Suspicious of unwieldly bureaucratization in industry, Johnson initiated a policy of decentralization, giving divisions and affiliates a great deal of autonomy in their operations. It was said that he embarked on this policy after once calling a meeting of all executives involved with a particular product. Dismayed that they numbered 27, he then and there decided to reorganize to eliminate inefficiency.

Divisions under Johnson’s leadership eventually included such names as Surgikos, Inc. (surgical packs and gowns), the Personal Products Division (sanitary napkins), Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation (birth control products), and Ethicon (sutures). In 1959 Johnson & Johnson bought McNeil Laboratories, a producer of prescription drugs, and Cilag-Chemie, a Swiss pharmaceutical company. In 1961, the company acquired Janssen Pharmaceutical. Retiring in 1963, Johnson stayed with the company after that as chairman of the board. At the time of his death in 1968, Johnson & Johnson had some 90 plants and $700 million in sales in 120 countries.

During World War II, Johnson became rationing administrator for the state of New Jersey, then a colonel assigned to Army Ordnance. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1942, becoming known thereafter as “the General” to employees and friends alike. He then became chief of the New York Ordnance District and later chairman of the War Production Board and of the Smaller War Plants Corporation (SWPC), over the strong objections of Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri, who thought that big business would have too much control of government contracts under Johnson’s leadership.

Johnson set out to prove Truman wrong, moving immediately to guarantee more contracts for small plants. In a speech in 1943, he condemned the building of larger and larger defense plants, when smaller plants could serve the nation’s purposes well. He was eventually credited with bringing more government contracts to small businesses in New York state and northern New Jersey. Political wrangling, however, began to negate the SWPC’s effectiveness. In September 1943, Johnson resigned his position. Despite the frustrations of the job, most agreed that he had done well in a difficult assignment.

Johnson’s first book, But, General Johnson (1944), detailed his experiences in Washington, condemning bureaucracy and centralization in a good-humored way. The second, Or Forfeit Freedom (1947), proclaimed many of Johnson’s reform ideas and critiqued the industry of his day. Johnson also published Robert Johnson Talks It Over in 1949 and was one of the authors of Human Relations in Business in 1950.

Social and Economic Impact

Johnson had a uniquely people-centered approach to business operations. In 1935, he wrote a pamphlet entitled “Try Reality,” in which he urged other industrialists to adopt new policies of corporate responsibility to their employees and to the world at large. He later created the Johnson & Johnson, credo stating that its first responsibility was to its consumers; the second, to its employees; the third, to the community and environment; and the fourth, to the stockholders. Johnson and his successors believed that the stockholders would be well served if the company met the first three responsibilities. Johnson & Johnson’s credo attracted wide media attention and was acclaimed as a future-oriented approach to business practices. To this day, Johnson & Johnson is known for its humane personnel policies, such as liberal family leave and on-site day care.

At times Johnson disappointed his more conservative business colleagues with his liberal approach. His belief in union-management cooperation defied traditional business practices of the times. Within management, he disliked people who never disagreed with him and did not retaliate against dissenters. His policy of decentralization also went against the current thinking among other large industries whose divisions were increasingly becoming less autonomous. Johnson also promoted a higher minimum wage, improved factory conditions, and the responsibility of business to society.

Under the leadership of Robert Johnson, the contributions of the company to the social and economic wellbeing of Americans were considerable. Continuing in his father’s tradition of providing quality health care products, he improved some older products such as baby powder and baby cream and made them best-sellers; and his policy of diversification has made the company the great success it is today, employing over 91,000 people in its worldwide operations. At all times, Johnson was idealistic in his approach to business and the people who worked for him. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Johnson once said, “We build not only structures in which men and women of the future will work, but also the pattern of society in which they will work. We are building not only frameworks of stone and steel but frameworks of ideas and ideals.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is his enduring legacy. Arising not only from his business interests, but also from his humanitarian concern for patients, the foundation was begun in 1972 from a $1.2 billion bequest from Johnson and $2 billion in grants. The foundation issues a grant to help Americans get basic health care, improve health services to the chronically ill, and reduce the harm caused by substance abuse. The phrase “made possible by the Robert Johnson Wood Foundation” is also commonly attached to health-related programs on the Public Broadcasting System and in other media outlets. The goals of the foundation reflect Robert Wood Johnson’s own sense of personal and corporate responsibility for the health of the whole society.

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