William R. Johnson, CEO of The H.J. Heinz Company since 1998, has had to do it twice in his life, first as the son of an NFL player and coach and then as the successor to the larger-than-life Tony O’Reilly.
Johnson was born in Palo Alto, Calif., the son of Bill “Tiger” Johnson, who played center for the San Francisco 49ers from 1948 to 1956 and then moved on to a coaching career with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was appointed the Bengals’ head coach in 1976 (himself following big footsteps, the legendary Paul Brown), but resigned midway through the 1978 season after an injury to star quarterback Ken Anderson led to a disappointing start. Still, the elder Johnson did produce two second-place seasons for the team. He stayed on as the tight-ends coach until 1990.
“My dad had a temper, which is how he got the nickname ‘Tiger,’” Heinz’s Johnson recalls. “But he was a good role model. I learned to understand that success can be fleeting, and to be gracious in defeat. He would credit others when things were going well and take the blame when they weren’t.”
Being a coach and a CEO are both about nurturing talent in others and then delegating to the right people, he says.
Johnson, now 58, remembers that his father was a great believer in being straight with the people who reported to him. “I was raised with the notion that you should focus on the job you have. I’ve heard former players call to thank him for being upfront with them. It’s important to understand what is expected of you and to do what needs to be done now.”
At the time of his father’s retirement, the younger Johnson had been with Heinz for eight years, working his way up from a general marketing manager to president and CEO of Heinz Pet Foods and, later, its StarKist Tuna unit, where he engineered turnarounds for both of the underperforming divisions. (Since Johnson became CEO, Heinz has shed both companies, part of the 2002 product spinoff to Del Monte Foods.)
Johnson’s undergraduate degree is from UCLA, with an MBA from the University of Texas’s McCombs School of Business. His first job after business school was as a $13,000-a-year assistant product manager for Behold furniture polish.
Like many who rise to the top of large multinationals, Johnson has moved his family repeatedly between posts and has been away from home a great deal as a globe-trotting executive.
By 1990, the Johnsons were back in Cincinnati, where he was running the locally based StarKist and also simultaneously the company’s fast-growing operations in Asia — “I was killing myself with travel,” he says.
The day before a presentation to the Heinz board in Pittsburgh, Johnson got a call from O’Reilly asking him to come back to headquarters. “I remember telling my secretary that I was either going to be fired or be named president.”
When he called his wife, Susie, with the news of his promotion, she was initially less than enthusiastic. The Johnsons had just made a down payment on a house in Cincinnati, and the prospect of having to move yet again was unsettling.
“She hung up on me,” Johnson says now with a smile.
With the return to Western Pennsylvania (the Johnsons had cycled through one previous time), their daughter looked at schools in Fox Chapel and Sewickley. An older child, a son, had already left the nest for college.
With its rolling hills and proximity to the airport, Sewickley (and the Sewickley Academy) won. The Johnsons belong to the Allegheny Country Club, where they slog through the occasional golf game — he unembarrassedly admits to being something of a duffer, shooting in the low 100s — and the couple enjoys dinners out at the stylish Sewickley Hotel.
“I couldn’t pry Susie out of Sewickley now,” he says. “We like it immensely.”
But work remains a major priority. He says he has worked virtually every Saturday and Sunday in his 34-year marriage. A senior Heinz executive tells of the dreaded Monday morning avalanche of notes and directives delivered by Johnson’s office.
During football season, though, Sundays are also reserved for game watching on his satellite all-football network. Johnson told one reporter that “I’ll be cheering for the Steelers, but praying for the Bengals,” on game days. In his corner office in downtown’s U.S. Steel Tower, he has a football helmet on display, with one side carrying the Steelers’ logo and the other the Bengals’.
Heinz is the most globally diversified of the major U.S.-based food companies, with operations in more than 200 countries. It’s known for different brands in various parts of the world. In Great Britain, for example, Heinz’s strongest product is its baked beans line, while in China and elsewhere, baby foods are prominent. Sales and marketing campaigns are crafted for local tastes — in Europe, Heinz runs decidedly more risqué TV spots than it ever would in this country.
(Also in his Pittsburgh office, Johnson has a photo of his daughter with English heartthrob actor Hugh Grant, the brother of a family friend. “He calls me the ‘baked beans man,’” he says.)
One of the joys of his Heinz career, Johnson says, has been “learning to be global” and understanding how commerce, and more recently the Internet, are changing international perspectives. He says Heinz is no longer a “mostly American company with international operations” but a “global corporation that happens to have its headquarters in Pittsburgh.”
Many American executives and their companies fail in that transition to becoming truly global because they bring too much of their Americanism with them, Johnson believes.
At a recent employee function in the Netherlands, Johnson was asked if a Dutch manager could ever become CEO. “I said, ‘absolutely.’”
But for all the accomplishments during his tenure at Heinz, Johnson says the biggest honor in recent years was to have been his son’s best man. “I was gone a lot when he was growing up. I can’t tell you what it meant to be up there with him. That was really special.”