Monday Interview: Paul Johnson, director at Johnson Partners

Paul Johnson discusses swapping a music career for the freight industry and taking over the hot seat of the family business

Paul Rodgers Paul Johnson and his father Bernie Johnson, who founded the firm Johnson Partners
Paul Johnson and his father Bernie Johnson, who founded the firm Johnson Partners

When the bright lights of a music career dimmed for Teessider Paul Johnson, he joined his father Bernie in a career move that seemed a million miles away from showbusiness.

Yet the 36-year-old’s switch to the freight world resulted in a formidable father-and-son partnership that has helped grow the business significantly in recent years, with more growth set to come.

Middlesbrough-based freight forwarders Johnson Partners first began life in 2004 with a team of two and now has eight employees to oversee road, sea and airfreight services to list of 100 clients, which is being added to all the time.

The family firm is carrying out huge projects, aiding multi-million pound industry projects for multinationals right around the globe.

A decade after it was established, the firm is targeting more big businesses after recently completing its largest assignment to date – sending two generators worth £2.5m, each weighing 60 tonnes, to China for heavy equipment dealer Finning.

Over time the firm’s strong customer relations ethic has built up a burgeoning list of repeat business and referrals, helping to amass an impressive portfolio of industrial clients including MPI Offshore, LB Foster, Hird Rail and Darchem Engineering, for whom they handle high value and sometimes awkward – or ‘out-of-gauge’ cargo.

High profile contracts include a hydro power station in Madagascar, rail shipments from the USA to Australia. The firm also has a long-standing relationship with world-renowned Middlesbrough-born artist Mackenzie Thorpe for shipments around the world.

Paul’s determination to drive the firm’s continuing success is clear, so it comes as a surprise to learn he initially had his heart set on a career as a professional musician.

When opportunities were scant, however, and teaching music failed to hit the right note for him personally, he soon discovered an aptitude for organisation and enthusiasm for business.

Today Paul is a director at the firm and poised to take over the reins from his father Bernie, 65.

Together, the pair have grown the business by 50% over the last three years, establishing an international network of agents and providing a door-to-door service globally, with turnover predicted to top £2m this financial year.

Yet it could all have turned out very differently had Paul not discovered that he was truly cut out for management.

“I wanted to be in a rock band. It’s the most cliched thing, I know, but I wanted to do music for a living,” he said.

“I went to Barnsley College – the same college where the Arctic Monkeys studied, but not when I was there – and completed a degree in popular music studies.

“This was the late ‘90s so music was a large industry but there weren’t a huge amount of jobs within the industry.”

An accomplished guitarist, flutist, singer and keyboard player, Paul also through teacher training after setting his heart on teaching music classes at college level and above.

However, he eventually taught 11 to 16-year-olds at a Redcar secondary school over a three year period he describes as “challenging”.

Fate then stepped in, in 2005, as his father was looking to expand his business from a team of three.

Drawing a line under music and teaching, he took a chance on a whole new career by joining Johnson Partners, originally looking after the company’s administrative duties.

“I originally started out looking after admin work but after a few months, I moved into a full time role, looking after operations – and since then I have covered pretty much every department up to and including finance. It’s a very mixed role,” he said.

“My father had spent a long time working for other people, but he was encouraged to be in control of his own destiny and build something to leave as a legacy, to have something tangible so he could say ‘I’ve started my own business in my local area’.

“Ten years down the line and we’ve done just that – we’ve created jobs, brought business to the area and are stepping up our own profile.”

The firm’s specialism is “out of gauge” – abnormal loads, typically high value equipment, that won’t fit onto a trailer and requires specialist transit plans. In some cases it can take weeks, maybe months to complete a contract from start to finish.

He said: “What we do is sit with the client at the early stages, go round the table to discuss the pieces being moved and look at how we can carry out the job.

“They can take a lot of planning. We’ll ask if pieces of machinery can be dismantled, demonstrating how it could be awkward and potentially dangerous, and we can give advice on how to carry out the job.”

When the recession took hold, Paul said one contract in particular helped the business weather the storm – and it would also prove to be a gamechanger for the firm overall, aiding their switch in focus.

Middlesbrough-based MPI enlisted the firm’s services for the forwarding contract management of the multi-million pound build of two offshore wind installation vessels in Shanghai, China.

Johnson Partners was commissioned to coordinate all the parties involved, to deliver equipment needed to build Adventure and Discovery – two jack-up vessels used for the installation of offshore wind farms. The team ensured all components and equipment were sent from mainland Europe and Scandinavia to a shipyard in Qidong, near Shanghai where the vessels were built.

Hauliers and shipping lines had to be synchronised as well as swiftly liaising with suppliers. The main out of gauge cargo included 12 engines manufactured by Rolls Royce, each weighing 40 tonnes, as well as six specialist thrusters – a type of propeller for manoeuvring the vessel into position – for each vessel, manufactured by Rolls Royce in Finland and each weighing 31 tonnes.

The containment also included a 50-tonne crane for each vessel manufactured by Liebherr in the UK and electrical gear manufactured in Poland.

To add to the pressure, one of the vessels had charterers waiting for it, so any slight delay would have had huge cost implications.

Finally, Paul and Bernie were proud to see the completion of the project in 18 months.

That MPI contract, carried out for an undisclosed but clearly lucrative amount, was the main reason the firm weathered the storm of the recession, emerging a fitter, healthier firm with a relationship maintained with the firm ever since.

Word spread of the small firm’s ability to carry out such technical, tricky orders too, resulting in an order book that has significantly grown post-recession, offering a valuable, personal service to all areas of industry, both on home turf and further afield.

Since the recession, the biggest change in their business has been the value of projects. No longer seen as a simple courier, they now market themselves as a high value project forwarder and engineering partner.

Paul said: “The MPI Offshore contract was a real breakthrough project for us. It was the biggest project we had taken on at that point and we demonstrated that we could do it, and others are more willing to come to us as a result.

“That contract was hugely important for us at the time. The one thing the recession did for us was help us to refocus. We had to dig deep to keep afloat and that gave us momentum, going through the projects and the jobs and shipments that were better for us.

“We had been taking just about everything that was going but after that we were much more focussed. It made us roll up our sleeves and actually find the right jobs through our contacts.

“By marketing ourselves firms are now thinking about us more – and we’re winning more repeat business with them.

“We’ve had lots of other big contracts but sometimes it doesn’t need to be as glamorous as sending 28 pieces to Korea – last year we made more money through air freight. Some look more impressive on paper but others will be bigger in terms of numbers.”

Since parking music as a full-time career option Paul has still maintained his interest, playing on mixing desks and keyboards of an evening at the home he shares with his wife Danielle, once their young daughters – Eleanor, five, and Lucy, four – are in bed.

He has now managed to turn this hobby into a second business and several years ago, he and a friend launched Sidetrak Records, a firm marketing itself as a “forward thinking house music record label”.

He said: “The record label brings in a modest amount but being realistic it is a part time project, something we do in our free time which we both really enjoy, and one that provides a creative outlet.

More importantly, having marked 10 years in business Paul is now focussed on helping Johnson Partners maintain and grow its levels of business.

Ultimately, this will also involve taking on more staff. He hopes to expand by two or three over the next three to five years.

The numbers might seem low but the nature of the work doesn’t require high numbers of employees, but rather for those people to develop new contacts and build bigger supply chains around the world, penetrating new markets overseas.

He said: “This summer marked 10 years since we set up and we’ve drawn breath a bit.

“We’ve done a lot of work internally to make things more fluent, such as updating our IT systems, rebranding and generally look at how we do things and how we can improve.

“This is still very much dad’s business but he’s 65 and is in the phase of handing it over to me, but he wants to make sure the business is fully prepared for that.

“It would be a huge loss if he said ‘I’m retiring tomorrow’ so he’s not going overnight.

“He’s planning to wind down slowly, and he’ll always be interested in what’s happening so even when he’s not here I know I’ll be able to call upon him if I need to.

“Of course it will be nerve-wracking – especially becoming responsible for the people, the staff.

“I regard the staff as our greatest asset and ensuring that they develop and work in the right environment is important. From that angle it’s definitely nerve-wracking and I imagine that happens a lot in family businesses as they move through the generations.”

Much of Paul’s management style harks back to his teaching days, and he now applies similar techniques he needed in stressful classroom environments.

“Teaching was a management role but I work in a much more controlled environment now – everything is thrown at you as a teacher. Now my role is much more facilitative than authoritative and I think I’m a pretty laid back person.”

Looking ahead, Paul is keen to focus more on targeting overseas business.

The firm has proved geography isn’t an issue, having developed a strong network of charterers and hauliers around the world who have been called into action on many trans-continental operations.

“We’re working on events and exhibitions and gaining tips for exporting and the focus on that has really helped, he said. “In five years I think we will have grown and taken on more staff.

“By then I will have a much more active role leading the business and like to think we could add jobs to the industry, keep things growing and improving at a steady pace. We know what we can do, what we are capable of so there’s a lot of potential.”

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