Civic Service, Political Activism Hallmarks of Johnson’s Career : Profile: GE-trained executive made Western Digital a $1-billion company by changing its manufacturing focus, then shepherded it through tough financial times.
Western Digital Corp. Chairman Roger W. Johnson isn’t your typical high-tech company chief executive.
Schooled with a generation of managers at General Electric Co. in the 1960s, Johnson believes that executives should demonstrate civic-mindedness by participating in the political and volunteer organizations of the communities where they live and do business.
It is no wonder that Johnson now plans to leave the personal computer products manufacturer, where he engineered a decade of growth and two financial turnarounds, for a post as head of the General Services Administration, the federal agency that procures the government’s equipment and manages its property.
“I never really had an ambition for this post, but it’s really a continuation of my interests in policy issues,” Johnson said Monday. “I don’t think businesses can stay independent of politics when it comes to nonpartisan policy matters.”
Johnson, 58, broke ranks with Republicans last year and threw his support to Bill Clinton, whom he viewed as a centrist who could unite a bickering Congress. He hopes to bring his experience as a large-company manager to the federal government.
Though Johnson is a lifelong Republican, he came from fairly liberal roots. He was born in 1934 during the Great Depression, son of an AFL-CIO union activist in Hartford, Conn. By age 10 he was walking picket lines with his father. But despite that early influence, Johnson said, he turned to the Republican Party after the first time he paid taxes.
He was class valedictorian at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., where he graduated in 1956 with a business degree. He met his wife, Janice, at college and was mulling a career as a professional baseball player when he left school. But on the advice of a coach who criticized his batting, Johnson went to work as a manufacturing manager at General Electric.
In his years at GE, Johnson was fond of calling corporate managers “elephants” because many would follow herd instincts and wreck companies when they panicked and “stampeded” into decisions.
Johnson moved on to various management positions at GE, all of them carefully planned career advances, and later began hopping to top executive spots at computer industry firms, including heading the disk drive division of Memorex Corp.
When Johnson came to Orange County in 1982 to take charge of Western Digital, it was an anemic computer products company with annual sales of $25 million. He is credited with shifting the company’s manufacturing focus to products such as disk drives and computer chips, which rode on the coattails of the personal computer revolution, taking the company to more than $1 billion in sales in 1990.
But Western Digital ran into trouble in 1990 and 1991 when the recession took hold. It suffered long delays in bringing new products to market, and heavy debt began to erase its profitability.
In 1991, the company came close to bankruptcy, and some analysts speculated that Johnson was in danger of losing his job. Under pressure, he dramatically pared back the company’s work force, sold off unprofitable businesses and reinvested in the company’s core business of making disk drives.
So far, Johnson and his new team of executives have again resuscitated the company’s finances, but its financial security remains precarious,, analysts said.
Johnson acknowledged during interviews last year that he was under a great deal of stress while trying to negotiate with bankers and cut costs. He chose to cut back on his charitable activities, though he remained chairman of the UC Irvine Foundation, vice chairman of the American Business Conference, a Washington business lobby, and a board member of the Pacific Symphony in Irvine.
Still, Johnson kept his trademark sense of humor during those difficult times. Once Johnson was about to tee off at a country club in Mission Viejo when he was struck in the head by a wayward golf ball. Four golfers drove up in carts to lend a hand. One of the men said he was a priest; two others were doctors. Johnson rubbed a welt on his head and said to the fourth, “I hope you’re a lawyer!”
Critics of Johnson said he had built a big ego and spent too much time on outside activities as a supporter of the arts and political groups. Wall Street analysts privately had grown impatient with speculation about Johnson’s upcoming appointment to some Clinton Administration post, especially since the company still faced financial hurdles.
But others say that the company is far healthier than at any other time in recent years and that this is the best possible time for Johnson to leave.
“I think Roger can bring his principles of business management to managing a large government bureaucracy, and I know that it was understood that when (Charles) Haggerty came aboard last year that he would be the successor,” said Safi Qureshey, chief executive of Irvine-based computer maker AST Research Inc. and one of Western Digital’s largest customers.
“The biggest loss for Orange County I see is in charitable organizations which he supported. During difficult times, they relied on his ability as a fund-raiser and organizer in the community,” said Mark Baldassare, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine.
Johnson said he hopes that he can maintain some ties to nonprofit groups in the county but said he will comply with federal ethics laws. He said he will miss Orange County and the company, though he will maintain a home in Laguna Beach along with one in Washington.
On Monday, Johnson issued a memo to employees that said in part: “I find my emotions at this moment running to extremes. . . . Contemplating leaving a company and fellow employees that you love . . . leaves me with a heavy heart . . . but being asked by the leader of your country to go to Washington to help him reinvigorate the government of the United States of America is a major honor that is beyond my wildest dreams.”