Robert “Bob” Johnson passed away on May 14 at the age of 80. He worked in the machine tool industry for 55 years before retiring last year following a cancer diagnosis. Johnson was well respected for his business acumen as well as his quiet, thoughtful, and kind approach to working with people.
In 1968, Johnson followed in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps and began working in the machine tool industry. He co-founded J&H Machine Tools in Charlotte, North Carolina, with business partner John Hackenbuerg in 1979. The company quickly became a well-respected machine tool distribution company, and Johnson considered everyone who worked at J&H Machine Tools to be family.
“Bob fostered a culture of putting aside one’s differences, working together, and building a company where we were all proud to say we worked at J&H Machine Tools,” says Jack Hasty, president of Ellison Technologies and former J&H employee for more than 20 years (Ellison acquired J&H Machine Tools in 2009).
Johnson was an icon in the industry and mentored many people who went on to have extraordinarily successful careers that have advanced the manufacturing industry.
“Bob was the gentle giant, the E.F. Hutton of the machine tool industry,” says Sykes. “He always listened intently, not speaking until the perfect opportunity; then when he spoke, everyone listened to the wisdom he conveyed.” [View 1970s “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen” commercial.]
Johnson was Chairman of the American Machine Tool Distributors Association (AMTDA), which merged with AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology in 2012. Johnson influenced manufacturing by encouraging collaboration, rather than animosity, between OEMs and distributors across the entire industry. This business model brought together many industry leaders around the world, such as legendary Masahiko Mori (founder of Mori Seiki, now DMG Mori) and Brian Papke, longtime president of Mazak USA and recipient of the AMT Al Moore Leadership Award.
“Bob fostered a sense of trust between the distributors and suppliers, which was rarely the case,” says former AMTDA President Peter Borden. “Plus, J&H was well known for smart regional managers who were very invested in the industry and the association.”
Johnson dedicated his passion and commitment to the machine tool industry by supporting customers, partners, employees, and even competitors.
“Bob was a respected businessman and, in my case, an honorable competitor. While he made his mark as engineer, sales leader, and entrepreneur, when the social hour began, Bob was a fun-loving charmer. As a machine tool man, he was the total package,” says Lee Morris, chairman of Morris Group Inc. and winner of the 2021 Albert W. Moore AMT Leadership Award.
Johnson was an early supporter of the United States Manufacturing Technology Orders (USMTO) survey program, which provides up-to-date statistics for North American manufacturing technology markets. Although some distributors were fearful about divulging too much information, Johnson convinced people that participation had a net benefit for everyone.
“The USMTO would not exist in its current format without Johnson’s efforts,” notes Pat McGibbon, chief knowledge officer at AMT.
Johnson touched many lives, and his extensive network of colleagues and partners have shared many memories with AMT since his passing. His legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of those who knew him.
“Bob was the thoughtful moderator, providing calm and thoroughly considered strategies in his business, and he brought the same qualities to the executive board at AMTDA,” recalls Ralph Hegman, former president and owner of Hegman Machine Tools (now part of the Morris Group) and current moderator for several AMT leadership forums. “He was steady and calm, and he had the best belly laugh that was infectious and genuine, just like Bob.”
AMT President Doug Woods shares, “Bob’s entrepreneurial skills and business success is self-evident, but what perhaps is not as well-known is his love and passion for our industry. His vision and leadership at AMTDA and collaboration with AMT propelled our industry to new heights! His legacy lives on through many people in the industry.”