ST. JOSEPH – Don Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the JohnsonRauhoff marketing firm in St. Joseph, is the anti-Don Draper of the ad world.
Draper is the main protagonist of the long-running television series “Mad Men,” about the cutthroat Madison Avenue advertising business of the 1960s.
Draper is a slick, ambitious womanizer with a double life.
The soft-spoken Johnson admits to being “on the shy side.” When his photographers did shoots with lingerie models he stayed off the set. “I still blush.”
And, by all accounts, he has no secret life. With Don Johnson, what you see is what you get.
He has never seen “Mad Men,” which debuted in 2007 and starts its final season this week.
“I lived it,” Johnson, 79, said.
“He’s definitely a ‘Mad Men’ throwback — but in the good ways,” said his daughter, Dawn Williams, vice president for creative strategy at JohnsonRauhoff. “He’s proud of his accomplishments and yet humble and somewhat stoic about his success. He’s a determined fellow with an intense work ethic.”
For Johnson, results and profits count. But so do other things.
The company motto is “Work smart, have fun, and prosper.”
Johnson has found a way to do all three for more than 50 years.
He is a 1955 graduate of Benton Harbor High School and attended Twin City Business College (which later became Lake Michigan College).
He started his career as an illustrator with Whirlpool Corp. in 1957. He served in the army in 1958, working at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland on top-secret weapon instructions and weapon comparison systems for the Pentagon.
He returned to work for several southwestern Michigan advertising agencies, working his way up to vice president and creative director for Vivox Advertising.
For one ad campaign for Wheel Horse lawn mowers he brought Baltimore Colts quarterback John Unitas to St. Joseph for a photo shoot on a pristine lawn.
“The photo team really got us in trouble with the home owner when they tore her lawn up,” Johnson recalled.
Building a business
Johnson avoided being the victim of layoffs because he could handle many tasks. He employed that versatility in founding his own one-man company in his basement in 1969.
Don Johnson Art and Design became Grose-Johnson-Reed in 1977, with clients such as Whirlpool and Heath Co. The company expanded again in 1983 with the acquisition of Rauhoff Photographics of Benton Harbor. JohnsonRauhoff, with partner David Rauhoff, moved to its current location at 2525 Lake Pines Drive in 1986.
While building the business, Johnson found time for family and community.
Dawn Williams recalls her dad coming to her class at Hollywood Elementary School and drawing giants and winged fairies, anything the kids could imagine.
“The kids were amazed and I was in heaven because all my friends thought he was a rock star,” she said.
Older daughter Jackie hung around the business “because that was the only way she could spend time with her father, I was working all the time,” Johnson said. “She was a good technical illustrator, even in high school.”
She caught the ad business bug, attended the American Academy in Chicago and worked for prestigious firms in Chicago and California before returning to the fold. She now is president of JohnsonRauhoff.
Mason Johnson was an all-state soccer forward for Lakeshore High School and also studied at the American Academy.
At the office, where he is vice president of creative services, “he’s all about the people,” said his sister Dawn, “just like my dad always has been.”
Outside of the office, Johnson was a member of the Rotary Club and a life-long Mason, participating in many charities. He was one of the early supporters of Cornerstone Alliance, and in 1992 was recognized as its Small-Business Person of the Year.
Johnson was one of the first executives to realize the potential of computers for his profession as early as 1970, and in the 1990s his employees had new-fangled devices called cell phones installed in their cars.
Their client list has grown to encompass companies from Amway to Meijer to Walmart.
At home, the company designed logos for St. Joseph Today, the Lincoln Township Police Department, and the Krasl Art Center, and did a promotional video for the Venetian Festival.
JohnsonRauhoff has garnered numerous awards for its work. In 2013 it received the international Gold MarCom Award for its Rubbermaid campaign, selected from 6,500 applicants.
Companies across the globe have realized that this company tucked into a corner of Michigan can produce high-quality work faster and cheaper than big-city firms, Johnson observed.
The Sur La Table holiday catalog of high-end kitchen appliances is produced by JohnsonRauhoff in a former Chevy dealership in Benton Harbor.
Successful marketing is no guessing game, Johnson explained.
He calls it “a very complex, fascinating science.”
The key, he said is research.
“If you don’t know who you’re talking to, or what is going to generate them to buy, you’re really wasting your time,” Johnson said.
When he brought his children in to this high-pressure field he gave them one piece of advice: “Don’t get an ulcer from this business.”
That’s where the fun part comes in. Employees race office chairs for charity. On one occasion they held the JohnsonRauhoff Regatta with homemade boats when the parking lot flooded.
In the end, there is method to the madness, Johnson concluded.
“When you look at the overview, all of the worst competitors in this area (his voice drops to a whisper) are gone,” Johnson said. “I’m still here. I must be doing something right.”Copyright ©2015 The Herald-Palladium 04/05/2015