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Magazine Article

An Era of Leadership

December 8th, 2011

By Lisa Wogan

An Era of Leadership

Jim Johnson’s favorite place in the world is his cabin on Hood Canal. Built in the 1950s, the simple red cedar house looks very much like it did when he and his wife, Anni Johnson, bought it in 1979. Tucked among tall trees with a view of the water, “it’s hyggelig,” Anni says, using the Danish word for cozy. It’s the family’s happy place, where they fish, crab, feed the ducks and revel in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

A flagpole made from fir by a friend anchored the beach for many years until it collapsed. So early this year, while Jim recuperated from ankle surgery in the city, Anni secretly arranged for a new bronze pole to be installed with a plaque inscribed for Jim’s 70th birthday, which was in May.

A few months later, about 20 Past Chairmen of the Washington Athletic Club gathered at the Top of the WAC to celebrate Jim’s tenure as President and CEO. Past Chairman Bill Rex (’97) presented Jim with a WAC flag. It was a poignant reminder of Jim’s usual practice of giving flags to the outgoing chairman as a sign of appreciation.

With emotion in his voice, Jim said, “I’ll be flying this flag at my place at Hood Canal with great honor and pride.”

After 15 years, Jim Johnson is stepping down. His dedication, vision and integrity have positioned the Club well for whatever the future holds. This much we know: He will be missed.

Team Spirit

When the WAC was looking for a new General Manager in 1996, Jim Johnson was not a candidate for the post. A senior executive at KIRO and a vice president of the WAC Board of Governors, he was actually on the search committee—but the pursuit wasn’t going well.

“We had interviewed all the candidates, and I called the headhunter and said, ‘None of them are satisfactory. We gotta start over,’” says Bill Rex, who was President Elect of the Board at the time and chaired the search. But instead of casting a new net, the headhunter suggested the best person for the job was in their midst. Bill remembers him saying, “The person you ought to talk to is Jim Johnson. He’s so adamant, so wonderfully strong about the WAC; he just worships the place.”

“He was the guy and he did a wonderful job,” Bill says. “History proves that.”

Jim’s affection for the WAC began before he joined. “I came here as a guest with a friend of mine,” he recalls during an interview in his corner office on the 9th Floor. “I remember … I felt it was a special place.”

Wearing a gray suit and tie, Jim gamely endures the interview. He’s uncomfortable talking about himself—he’d rather sing the praises of others—and he can be described as humble and self-effacing. With a full head of silver hair, he cuts a distinguished figure. His office is like a time capsule of his tenure, with accolades from community groups, such as the Seattle Police Foundation, expressions of gratitude from the Blue Angels, and a wall crowded with photos of him and member-leaders through the years.

He joined the Club in 1979, after Anni, who was already a member. “For many years, I just enjoyed the heck out of this place,” Jim says. A big part of that involved playing guard in the WAC basketball league.

Jim developed a passion for sports at an early age. He lettered in football, baseball and basketball at Queen Anne High School. On the hardwood, he preferred shooting from outside during a time before the three-point line, and he has long relished being part of a team.

“It’s always very, very satisfying when your team works together and produces results that never could have been accomplished by any one of the team members,” he says.

That love of teamwork would center Jim’s success at the WAC, where his skills as a coach emerged and took the Club to new heights.

Game Plan

Flash back to 1989, when Jim started serving on and chairing a variety of Club committees, then to 1993 when he joined the Board of Governors. From the start, he went above and beyond.

“I got to a point in time where I felt that maybe I could make a contribution as well as enjoy the Club,” Jim says with characteristic humility.

While serving on the Membership and Marketing Committee, he drafted a mission statement for the Club. As an officer of the Board, he collaborated with Bill Rex, Bruce Walker, Jerry Alhadeff and John Teutsch to produce the Club’s first five-year strategic plan. When it was adopted in 1996, it was a standout among private clubs.

In 1997, Jim’s title was changed to President & CEO. The Club also changed the title for the top board member to chairman rather than president to better mirror the business models familiar to most members. The idea was to run the Club more like a business, Jim says, noting one very big caveat: “Ultimately you have the obligation to improve the lives of members and be a responsible member of the community.”

Jim introduced a 5-6-7 management system comprised of five core values (leadership, excellence, integrity, service and sensitivity), six peak performance elements (core values, strategic planning, budgeting, job descriptions and standards of performance, incentive compensation plans, and member satisfaction monitoring), and seven habits based on Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

These ideas weren’t wallpaper. Jim constantly drove these principles home, particularly the values, and consistently walked the talk.

“I remember always being so impressed how he always knows everybody’s name,” says Kirsten Johnson, Jim and Anni’s 24-year-old daughter, who practically grew up at the Club. “Everyone always comments on that to me, and not just that he remembers their names, but what’s going on in their lives and families.”

Jim points to the team as the source of the WAC’s strength. His own efforts to cultivate a culture of excellence and respect—creating an environment in which individuals can excel—have created the space in which that strength has grown.

He also pushed the Club’s high ideals beyond the Clubhouse walls, helping solidify the WAC as an institution in Seattle. “The Club has always had a heart, there’s no question about that,” Jim says. “But there wasn’t a focus.” So during the past nine years, he’s been working with the board to develop thriving community partnerships with groups such as United Way, the Boeing Classic and Special Olympics Washington.

We’re No. 1

Jim was never shy about stating his goal to make the WAC the premier club in America—and he systematically went about bringing the facility and services up to that standard. In 2001, the AWEsome Project was completed. It included a new and expanded coed fitness center, the addition of the Wellness Center and the state-of-the-art Spa at the WAC, as well as refurbishing the Helene Madison Pool and creating 9th Floor member services and executive offices.

During his tenure, Jim also oversaw the renovation of Torchy’s, Hagerty’s, the Sports Café, and the remodeling of most of the Inn at the WAC. Food and Beverage menus have been freshened and made more exciting, and the Club’s wine collection regularly captures local and national awards.

“Most clubs fray around the edges, but we never have,” says Past Chairman Herb Bridge (’93). “Everything is fresh and nice and new—and Jim did it without any assessments.” Since 1997, the WAC has won the Five Star Platinum Clubs of America Award every year the designation has been bestowed.

Jim navigated all sorts of challenges with a balance of optimism and planning. He weathered the WTO protests at the front door, the Nisqually Earthquake and the dot-com bust. But the biggest test of his vision and planning was the recent economic downturn.

“No one wants to go through that,” Jim says. “In this case, we were ready. The Club came through the Great Recession very well thanks to the investments of the previous 12 years.”

What most members may not know is that in addition to overseeing necessary cuts to the operating budget, Jim also voluntarily took a significant cut to his compensation. “He stepped up and did it,” says Past Chairman Rob Dunlop (’10), who was serving on the Chairmen’s Committee, which oversees compensation. “That was never promoted or shared with anybody, but that is Jim. He puts the Club first.”

Family Matters

Jim’s commitment to the WAC is eclipsed only by his love for family and country. He’s been married to Anni, a vivacious blue-eyed blonde, for 36 years. It’s easy to see how she stole Jim’s heart when they met at a KIRO-sponsored dinner party in Las Vegas.

A business leader in her own right, Anni co-owns Scan East West Travel, a travel agency in Queen Anne started by her mother. Since well before Jim got the top job, Anni has been organizing trips for Club members. She also serves as a member of the board of directors for Washington Federal Savings.

Jim has three children: Daniel, 41, and Teri, 48, by a previous marriage, and Kirsten with Anni. Daniel is a physical therapist with a private practice in Tucson, Ariz. Teri is an adult inpatient supervisor at the Providence St. Peter Chemical Dependency Center in Lacey. Kirsten is a market developer at ChemPoint in Bellevue and lives on Alki Beach in West Seattle. She can almost see the WAC from her living room.

“I think I was a member before I was born,” she says. When Kirsten was a baby, her crib was crowded with stuffed bears and dolls. “Dad was like, ‘This is too much pink,’ and he put a big basketball right in my crib,” she says. The Club has been a focal point in her life from WeeWACs and swim team to her current involvement in the Wine Club and the 20s/30s Committee. She’s also a frequent user of the workout facilities. After her dad steps down, one of the things she’ll miss is sneaking up on him in his office.

What’s next?

Around the time he took the helm of the WAC, Jim decided to pursue a longtime desire to ride Harley-Davidsons. He took the Evergreen Safety Council course in about 1996. “It’s good I passed,” he says. “Because I’d already bought the bike.”

He was an avid rider who kept his skills sharp with regular outings, trips to Hood Canal and bigger adventures, including to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota with Anni and to Daytona Beach Bike Week in Florida.

Although Jim’s riding skills lapsed after his recent surgery and he decided it was time to retire his bike, he’ll remain part of the Club when his time as President & CEO ends. He’ll enjoy the club as a member—something friends and family are encouraging—and serve as a consultant to help his replacement into the post. He also plans to explore the feasibility of creating a nonprofit foundation to help provide college tuition support for the children of WAC team members.

Still, it won’t be easy to leave the team he loves. “It’s been a wonderful 15 years,” Jim says. “I believe in order to do a good job, you have to have a passion for it. That makes it very tough to stop doing.”

There may be no more perfect metaphor for Jim’s approach to the Club than his motorcycle riding. “There are guys who do this because it’s flashy,” says Past Chairman Chuck Richmond (’04), a close friend and former biking companion. “But for Jim, it’s just the sheer joy of riding and having a great piece of equipment and taking good care of it.”