Executive Spotlight: Gary Johnson, chairman of the Johnson Dealerships of Pittsfield
PITTSFIELD — For Gary Johnson, chairman of the Johnson Dealerships of Pittsfield, selling and repairing motor vehicles is more than an occupation. It's a way of life.
It also was a way of life for Johnson's father and grandfather. The Johnson family has been working with cars in Pittsfield since 1916.
Johnson's grandfather, Arthur "Chris" Johnson, founded the company 103 years ago when he partnered with Ralph M. O'Connell Auto Sales to sell Smith-Forma and Chandler cars. His father, Arthur "Art" Johnson, joined what was then known as the Berkshire Auto Co. in 1939, then became vice president in 1958, when Chris Johnson died.
Six years later, Art Johnson sold his interest in the Berkshire Auto Co. and purchased a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. Gary, who returned from Boston College on the weekends to sell cars, helped his father run the dealership until Art died suddenly in 1967. At 22, the age when most people have just gotten out of college, Johnson had become the youngest owner of a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in the United States.
That was 52 years ago.
At 74, Gary Johnson still is going strong at the helm of what he believes is the oldest family-owned auto dealership in Western Massachusetts. We recently spoke with the man behind the Johnson Ford-Lincoln dealership on East Street in Pittsfield about his long love affair with cars, the changes in the auto industry over the past half-century and his fondness for drag racing.
Q What was it like at such a young age taking over a business that your grandfather and father had run and suddenly being thrust into the leading role?
A When my father passed away suddenly at 50 years old, it was somewhat difficult, but fortunately, the local bankers knew me. I had to prove it to the Ford Motor Co. They gave me a year to show them that I could manage the dealership.
Q What did Ford say to you?
A You have a year. At the end of the year, if you didn't progress the way they wanted you to, they would force you to sell it.
Q Did that motivate or scare you?
A Well, I'm sure it motivates you when someone tells you something like that, but it didn't really scare me. I had the experience.
Q When you take over a business at 22, people might see you more as a kid than an adult. How did you get the older generation to take you seriously?
A I didn't really have any problems with that generation of people. ... In 1967, the car business was a little bit different than it is today. ... The important thing was to be honest and truthful.
Q Honest and truthful are often the opposite of what people think of car dealers. That's a stereotype, but as an auto dealer, how do you deal with that?
A I think there's bad people in every business. And for some reason I guess car dealers have worn that for a long time. But I think in a community like Pittsfield you have to prove to people that you're honest and sincere and if they do have a problem, you address it and take care of it. That wins over everything.
Q If you hadn't gone into the auto business, what would you have done?
A I don't even know how to answer because my father gave me my first car when I was 8 years old. When I was 12 years old, I went to work in the service department for the old Berkshire Auto Co. I worked all the different departments throughout the dealership. ... All I knew was the car business. I never thought about doing something else.
Q Did you have other interests?
A Just cars. Back in the early '60s, I drag raced, just as we all did in those days at Lebanon Valley.
Q Were you any good?
A Well, I was all right. It was more important to be working than it was drag racing.
Q How did you get involved in it?
A The manufacturers were making muscle cars. That was just an era that we all went through. We all had hot rods, and go-fast-cars. ... I still have an interest in drag racing, but not as a participant.
Q How has the car business changed since you started?
A We're in a technological world today. [Cars] last longer. There's a lot of things that the customer can do at home via the internet that they used to come into the dealership and ask us about. I think the most important thing is, the customer should come into the dealership and meet with the salespeople and sales managers and see it, feel it, touch it.
Q So, don't just shop online?
A There's bad things online. Recently, we tried to buy an older [Ford] Bronco online in Alabama and found out it was a scam. We were going to buy it to restore it. We found out where this person said he was, he wasn't. He was just looking for someone to send a check for $18,000. It was a notable dot.com company. We sent somebody there to find him. And the address he gave us, there was no building, no nothing.
Q Do you think about retirement?
A I haven't really thought about it. I guess I still enjoy it. I do have my son and my daughter there to give me a little bit of a break. Every once in awhile they let me go home at 3 o'clock.