Johnson’s Innovations LLC
Service Without Boundaries
There’s a quote by John Deere that strikes true with many entrepreneurs, "I will never put my name on a product that does not have the best that is in me." For brothers Eric and Jan Johnson, this age-old ideal is the reason for the constant search for quality and innovation. Lifetime workers in the agricultural industry, the Johnsons carry with them in their new business, Johnson’s Innovations (JI), a history of excellence in agricultural products and service.
The story of the Johnsons began all the way back in 1937 with Harry Johnson, the grandfather of Eric and Jan. After a logging accident left him unable to work his normal job, Harry started a farm equipment business in Ithaca selling Allis-Chalmers equipment to local farmers. Harry passed down the business through the generations to his grandsons Eric and Jan. The business went through a lot of changes, closing in 1987 after several difficult years and re-opening as a NAPA Auto Parts Store specializing in agricultural equipment by Eric in 1993. As the business grew, he started introducing his own equipment into the store. In 1995, Johnsons NAPA began distributing the first product, the Peek-a-Boom, a remote control for agriculture sprayer booms, in the store. In 2000, Eric created the most successful innovation yet, the Feed-R-Meter, a completely automated calf-feeder for dairy farmers. Then in December of 2008, Jan was let go from his full-time job. Jan and Eric, a John Deere equipment specialist himself, sat down to talk the next day about the future. They talked about the idea of starting an independent business dedicated to selling these products. Johnson’s Innovations was born.
From the beginning, the sale of JI’s products showed signs of success. They sold 42 Peek-a-Booms in just 3-months and have been exporting the product to Canada and Australia. Sales of Feed-R-Meters have grown as well; Feed-R-Meters sell everywhere from Michigan to Idaho and to notable clients like Pfizer. However, all of Johnsons Innovations manufacturing is done in Mid-Michigan.
“We knew farmers needed these products,” recalled Jan. But big concept changes are difficult. “It can take a while to introduce them to a new idea because they often say ‘That won’t work for me.’”
Dr. Jacqueline El Sayed, a Mechanical Engineering Professor at Kettering University (Jan’s daughter) recommended that Eric and Jan contact the MI-SBTDC at Kettering for some help growing the business. “We really are limited at how much we can do because we do everything,” explained Jan. Harry Blecker, a small business consultant with the MI-SBTDC Genesee/Lapeer (6) office, looked at opportunities to help JI grow and reach their market of farmers. Jan explained, “Marketing in the agricultural industry is different from other industries because even the largest corporate farms are usually family-owned and operated. You have to know how to talk to third and fourth generation farm family members.”
Blecker started by going over JI’s financial statements and identifying possible issues. In addition, Blecker and the Johnsons began working on ways to improve JI’s marketing plan. Blecker brought in Growth Group consultant Kerri Michalowski to help identify new customers in their target market. Michalowski used access to large market research database to identify large commercial farmers in the Midwest. Before one large agricultural conference, the Johnsons reached out to each farmer through direct mail to notify them that JI would be at the event. Jan admits that “the research was a big help.”
JI also noticed that they were receiving a moderate amount of orders from their website. Blecker referred the Johnsons to Precept Partners who looked at ways where JI could continue to improve their website. Precept Partners provided JI with a ten-point analysis of their website with information on how the website could be improved for search engines and visitors. “We learned quite a bit and took away some changes to our website including adding some videos about our products. The videos provide a closer look at our products at work for our visitors,” said Jan. Two Feed-R-Meters were sold in October as a direct result of the web site, one in Missouri and one in New York; the first units sold in these two states.
“Selling their products locally and throughout the world shows that great ideas, combined with sweat and persistence can payoff," said Blecker. “It has been a pleasure working with two brothers who have meshed their skills, marketing and technical, to achieve a goal that has positive implications for themselves and their community."
Excellent customer service and new innovations have been the cornerstone for JI’s growth. The Johnsons have gone so far as to travel 1400 miles to help a customer solve some issues with a new Feed-R-Meter.
The Johnsons listen closely to their customers as was the case with one large calf operation in Wisconsin. This farmer was feeding two thousand calves three times a day with manually operated nozzles. At their request, Eric developed a foot operated meter controller specifically to reduce hand fatigue. While testing the prototype foot operated unit they decided they wanted to reduce the three second cycle time to two seconds. Eric then designed and built a high volume unit that reduced the cycle time to one second. They now have excellent portion control, reduced hand fatigue, less waste and quicker feed cycle time. Johnsons Innovations has a new product. Innovation is the name of the game.
Jan has really appreciated the services provided by the MI-SBDC, “They always call back right away and they are very enthusiastic about helping out,” noted Jan. “They have provided great information and references for us.” Jan does provide some advice for entrepreneurs, “Business can be tough, so you should understand that you shouldn’t go into business to make money right away. It can take a while to get going.”
While the Feed-R-Meter has been the best-selling product, the Johnsons are looking to expand their product line in the future to products with larger audiences. They hope the company will continue to grow in the future.
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