A Farmer’s Catalog Metamorphosis
BACKGROUND: Rob Johnston Jr. founded the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog on a farm in New Hampshire when he was 22. He spent most of his life on farms, and is now in his 34th year running the business as its chairman.
BIGGEST INITIAL CHALLENGE: Unfamiliarity with the catalog business. “The biggest challenge was the day-to-day operations of running a business,” Johnston says. “The creativity or the energy to do the work was never an issue. Not having run a business beforehand was the biggest factor.”
HOW HE OVERCAME THAT CHALLENGE: “I gradually grew the product line itself, which allowed me to hire people to run the business end of the company,” he says. “I was able to focus on the creative and product development aspects, and let the businesspeople handle the business issues.”
CURRENT CHALLENGE: Reorganization within the company. It’s transitioning from private ownership to employee ownership (employees currently hold a 30.5 percent stake in the company). “I’m an amateur at selling a company,” he says. “It’s going to be an adventure making that change, going from a friendly monarchy to group ownership.”
HOW HE’S DEALING WITH THE INCREASED POSTAL RATES: “We had two options: either produce fewer catalogs to offset the cost of the postage increase, or budget for the increase,” Johnston says. “We chose the latter. Our catalog is a critical element of our business, and we weren’t prepared to sacrifice it. In the end, we’ll experience about a 15 percent increase in postage this fiscal year.”
WHAT SETS HIS COMPANY APART FROM OTHERS: “Our product and service,” he says. “We have a fairly unusual product line; vegetables make up 70 percent of our business. We do a lot of field research. There’s a vertical integration of product development to product production. Also, we’re very strict on our service standards — our orders are filled very quickly.”
WHAT ABOUT THE BUSINESS APPEALS TO HIM: Product development and customer interaction. “When a home gardener tells me that I have helped him grow a certain flower that he’s never been able to grow before,” Johnston says, “it makes me feel good. On the commercial end, helping people make a living through our seeds is gratifying. The success of my customers fuels me.”
HOW HE KEEPS THINGS FUN AT JOHNNY’S SELECTED SEEDS: The company has a monthly staff luncheon organized by General Manager Mike Comer. In
addition, Johnny’s sponsors an in-house union for its employees that can meet on company time without management present.