2012 Women of Influence Award Recipient
The Business Journal
Spend a few minutes talking with Helen Johnson-Leipold and she is bound to tell you a story about her father, Sam Johnson, who grew Johnson Wax from a $150 million business into a $6 billion family of companies based in Racine.
"He was something special," said Johnson-Leipold, who as chairwoman of Johnson Financial Group is the fifth generation and first woman of her family to lead one of the family businesses. "He had a way to lead and inspire his employees that was amazing to watch."
The 55-year old Johnson-Leipold grew up watching her father build the family business, but said it was a hard decision to return to Racine to help lead it. She spent seven years in marketing with Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago after graduating from Cornell University in 1979.
"It was the most difficult decision I ever made, but it was also the best and most important decision I've ever made," she said. "It was huge shoes to fill with big responsibility and high expectations. It took a significant effort to get beyond 'she only got the position because of her last name.'"
She has been with the company for more than 25 years and currently is chairwoman and chief executive officer of Johnson Outdoors Inc. and chairwoman of Johnson Financial Group, parent company of Johnson Bank.
Johnson-Leipold said the last couple of years have been tough as both Johnson Outdoors and Johnson Financial were impacted by the severe economic downturn, but she believes both companies emerged stronger.
"A lot of our competitors in both of the businesses I run did not make it through," she said. "We did for one reason – strong, dedicated, talented people. It's always about the people."
Sally Smith, senior vice president and director of marketing at Johnson Financial Group, said Johnson-Leipold remembers how her father ran his business every day.
"She lives and leads by her father's principle that the greatest personal rewards are those that come after making a positive impact outside of yourself," she said.
Johnson-Leipold is active in the community, serving on the board of The Prairie School, a K-12 college prep academy. She also started Next Generation Now, a child-development day care center serving at-risk children from Racine's central city neighborhoods.
She and her husband, Craig Leipold, owner of the Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League, have five sons, a granddaughter and five dogs.
"As a family, we're all about the outdoors and anything to do with sports," she said.