Posted on Mon, May. 24, 2004

Samuel Johnson, former SC Johnson chairman, dies at 76

Associated Press

Samuel Johnson became a billionaire by expanding his great-grandfather's wax company into the consumer products giant SC Johnson.

But Johnson, who died of cancer Saturday at his home in Wind Point at age 76, was more than just a businessman. He was a philanthropist and environmentalist who deeply cared about his hometown of Racine and the rest of the world, friends and colleagues say.

"My thoughts of Sam were not really as a business person," Racine Mayor Gary Becker. "I think of him as a visionary for ideas and the community - more of a humanitarian than a business person."

Johnson became the fourth generation in 1967 to lead the 118-year-old family business that once was called Johnson Wax. He retired as chairman of the Racine-based company in 2000.

During that time, SC Johnson's annual sales rose to about $6 billion as Johnson turned the family business into four global companies that now employ more than 28,000 people making furniture polishes, waxes and other household products.

"The entire company is in grief and in mourning," SC Johnson spokeswoman Cynthia Georgeson said Sunday. The Johnson family declined comment.

"Racine, Wis., has been home to the Johnson family enterprises for over a century, nearly 120 years, and there's no indication that will change," Georgeson added.

Johnson was ranked as the richest man in Wisconsin, with a personal wealth estimated by Forbes magazine this year at $7.4 billion.

Under his leadership, the company maintained a philanthropic philosophy of contributing 5 percent of pretax profits to the communities in which it does business.

Johnson's philanthropy is particularly felt in Racine, where the Johnson name is credited with helping to revitalize the community.

"Where I used to work, and in other publicly traded companies, you're often criticized when you try to be generous," said Richard Hansen, chief executive officer of financial services firm Johnson International.

"In our company, we're constantly reviewed .... to make sure we're doing all we can for our community in our business practices and volunteerism."

Besides the corporate giving, Johnson started the Johnson Family Foundation in 1995 through which his family has contributed to various causes.

Georgeson said that, like Johnson, his children have chosen to give privately to many things.

"They will continue to do that," she said.

Johnson also earned accolades as an environmentalist. In 1975, he removed chlorofluorocarbon propellants from his company's products, three years before the government required it.

He was a founding member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which advised world leaders at the historic 1992 United National Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. He also served as chairman of the board for the Nature Conservancy.

Fortune magazine inducted him into the U.S. National Business Hall of Fame, calling him "corporate America's leading environmentalist."

Most recently, Johnson joined a coalition of environmental, business and religious groups in opposing a plan to build two coal-fired power plants between Milwaukee and Racine.

For all his influence, Johnson never was interested in becoming a celebrity.

"It's easier to be a philanthropist and a facilitator of good things when you're low-profile," he once said. "I think that, if you're high-profile, that if you're always blowing your own horn, people get tired of that."

In 2000, Johnson produced a documentary film called "Carnauba, A Son's Memoir," in which he retraced his father's 1935 expedition to Brazil in search of the carnauba palm. In the film, Johnson talked frankly about his alcoholism and his distant relationship with his father.

Johnson earned degrees from Cornell and Harvard Business School and served for two years as an U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. The Johnson Graduate School at Cornell is named for the family.

At his retirement, his son Fisk Johnson succeeded him as chairman. Two other adult Johnson children lead firms that were spun off the parent company. The fourth heads the family foundation.

"The children and the family will carry on in the same spirit in the community and the business," said John Gittings, a longtime friend of Johnson.

Johnson is survived by his wife of 50 years, Imogene, four children, 12 grandchildren, three step-grandchildren and a sister. A memorial service was scheduled for Thursday at Carthage College.