Name: Richard Cook
Title: President and COO
Company name: Johnson Supply
Number of locations: 24
Number of employees: 210
Year founded: 1953
Main lines: Armstrong, Ducane, Mitsubishi, Bard
Johnson Supply is a Houston-based HVACR wholesaler that will mark its 70th anniversary this year, and president and COO Richard Cook has been with the company for more than half that time. Johnson Supply was among the Distribution Trends Top 30 Distributors this year.
A Texas native, Cook moved from digging ditches to a post-college accounting job and later into HVACR wholesaling, his interest piqued by the experience of working on his family’s natural gas-powered air conditioner, and his father’s work for the local gas utility.
The ACHR NEWS sat down with Cook recently, via Google Meet, to talk about his career and Johnson’s success. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is published here.
DT: So what are the biggest challenges that Johnson Supply has had to navigate in the last two years? And how have you managed to stay ahead of the game?
Cook: So in 2020, managing the COVID situation was the biggest challenge. And, of course, we had the sub-challenge: safety of your people. The decisions you had to make about, “Do we allow people in our place of business? … How are we going to manage the COVID infection if it happens in the company, (keep) cash flow going?” …
We didn’t have to lay off anybody.
A lot of 2020 was managing that. And also making sure that expenses were pretty tightly controlled, because the revenue stream did drop pretty dramatically, particularly on the commercial side. Johnson Supply’s about 50% residential and about 50% commercial. Residential business picked up quite a bit in later 2020 and 2021.
The commercial business was, frankly, depressed until probably the last six months. ... So that was sort of our challenge in 2020. And 2021, obviously, the same challenge most people had … supply-chain disruption. We communicated and we’re pretty transparent with a lot of our suppliers, and I think that helped us.
The other big challenge we had was cash, with the inflation. Anybody [in the] inventory business, when you have high inflation, is going to be faced with that challenge.
DT: You went to the University of Houston. What was your major there, and how did you get your start in distribution?
Cook: My major was business — marketing, specifically. I took my time going through the University of Houston. (Chuckles). I was not the best student. But I graduated with a degree in business. … I was always interested in accounting. So my first job out of school was actually an accounting job.
I didn’t particularly care for accounting, particularly the money side of it. So my first sales job was in the HVAC business. It was a company called Mischer Wholesale.
I kind of got into it because when I was growing up, my dad was a sales manager for the gas company, the utility, and we had gas air conditioning, and it was always breaking. So I actually learned how to work on gas air conditioners so that we could have air conditioning in our house.
DT: What kinds of jobs did you have before your career in wholesaling? Jobs you might have had in college?
Cook: Well, I had a number of summer jobs in college. I worked one year for the Texas Department of Transportation. I also worked one summer for a company, basically a municipal entity that cleared grass out of drainage ditches. I had a job working for a landscaper. My job was digging irrigation ditches with a pick.
So I was fortunate in college to have a lot of jobs that I learned I didn’t want to do that for a living. Kind of motivated me to get more of a white-collar job.
DT: So what is the biggest change you’ve seen at the company? And how has that impacted what you do today in your current role?
Cook: Definitely one of the bigger changes has been around technology. When I started, there was the computer. You may remember the Commodore 64 and the Commodore 128. Those were the computers. We got a mainframe when I started (at Johnson) in ‘85.
The whole technology explosion was a game-changer. Competition was much, much less. Competitors tended to be defined by their brands.
DT: What keeps you motivated about your work, aside from the obvious of earning a living (and) providing jobs and good stuff to people?
Cook: There are two or three things. I’ll turn 70 this year. So I’m working past your traditional retirement age. Partially because I do enjoy it. I enjoy the succession-planning process and seeing the people that are moving up in our company. I enjoy the industry. I’ve been active in the industry a long time, a lot of brands.
We will become 100% ESOP (employee-owned) in the next couple of years. I’ve always had that as a goal for my tenure, so that journey, becoming 100% ESOP, has been a motivation for me to stay. And so those are the main things that keep me here.
It’s nice to have a job. I’ll retire at some point in time, and I know that the income stream will shrink pretty dramatically, but overall, it’s the whole succession planning, the industry. Relationships.
DT: What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Cook: Always be learning. To be a student of the industry, read books. Engage in industry organizations.
DT: And what was the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
“Just go, go sell something.”
It took a long time for me to understand the nuances of selling and the nuances of the relationship and the trust, and all that sort of thing. And, unfortunately, that was my early approach to selling, and it really was poor advice. A sales professional is a lot more than just going out and selling something.
DT: So if you weren’t running a distribution company, what would be your fantasy career, however realistic or unrealistic?
Cook: Oh, definitely spend the time with the grandchildren. They are a blessing and a miracle, and I enjoy spending time with them more than anything.
Traveling. I really look forward to traveling. Well, I’ve been very fortunate to travel a lot anyway. But never have had the time to just take off in a car and go down the road and maybe have a destination and maybe not.
I want to spend more time with my wife. She gave up a lot for my career. And so we’ve not had a lot of time just to go off ourselves, so to speak.
DT: So does spending time with the grandkids pay very well, and what are the fringe benefits? And how many weeks of vacation do you get with that?
Well, the fringe benefits are seeing the world through their eyes. They’re young, bright, idealistic, not a lot of cynicism. The latest one is one year old. Watching her learning to walk and all that sort of thing … it’s just a joy to see the world through their eyes, and to watch them grow up.