ITHACA, N.Y. -- Samuel C. Johnson, chairman emeritus of the Johnson Family of Companies, died May 22 at his home in Racine, Wisc., after a long battle with cancer. He was 76. He was the fourth generation of Johnson family members to head the 118-year-old family-owned group of businesses often referred to as Johnson Wax.
Johnson, who earned his undergraduate degree at Cornell University in 1950, was a presidential councillor at Cornell -- the highest honor accorded to an alumnus -- a former trustee and leading benefactor.
"Sam Johnson transformed Cornell with his vision and commitment," said Cornell President Jeffrey Lehman. "Socially conscious, environmentally aware and profoundly generous, he gave the Johnson Graduate School of Management a new intellectual identity, placing it at the center of the larger university that he knew and loved."
In 1984 Johnson and his family made a $20 million endowment gift to the Johnson School that was, at the time, the largest gift to any business school in the world. Later gifts supported the teaching of corporate environmental responsibility at the school and the creation of a new facility for Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology. Those choices reflected Johnson's deep interest in the environment.
Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes called Johnson "a warm and caring human being" and, along with his wife, Imogene Powers Johnson '52, "an exemplary Cornellian."
"Sam Johnson's leadership and friendship to Cornell will have an enduring impact," said Peter Meinig, chairman of Cornell's Board of Trustees.
"Throughout his life, Sam modeled what it meant for a leader to operate as a catalyst for the larger good," said Robert Swieringa, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of the Johnson School. The school is named for Johnson's great-grandfather and namesake, who founded S.C. Johnson and Son Inc., the initial Johnson company.
"When we set aside the obvious business benefits of being an environmentally responsible company, we are left with the simple human truth that we cannot lead lives of dignity and worth when the natural resources that sustain us are threatened or destroyed," Johnson said in 2003 when he made a gift to the Johnson School to give global environmental sustainability issues more prominence in MBA studies. An earlier gift he made established the S.C. Johnson Professorship in Sustainable Global Enterprise at the school, filled in 2003 by Professor Stuart Hart.
Johnson and his family endowed two other professorships at the school and one at the Laboratory of Ornithology, named for Imogene. They also supported the creation of the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity at the Laboratory of Ornithology, which opened in 2003.
When top business leaders convened for a summit at the Johnson School in April to mark the 20th anniversary of Johnson's gift to the school, one speaker, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, said of Johnson, "He knew how to be the leader of a great and a good company."
As chairman and CEO of S.C. Johnson and Son, Johnson made the landmark decision in 1975 to eliminate chlorofluorocarbon propellants from the company's aerosol products, three years ahead of U.S. law and 12 years before the global Montreal Protocol. Under Johnson's direction, environmental management became a core strategic focus of the business throughout the 1990s, and significant waste prevention and reduction initiatives were launched. By 1995, manufacturing waste had been cut in half, and a third of the company's products incorporated recycled and recyclable packaging.
Johnson was named "corporate America's leading environmentalist" by Fortune in 1993 and was a founding member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which advised world leaders at the 1992 Earth Summit. His firm received the World Environment Center Gold Medal for International Corporate Environmental Achievement in 1994 and a Lifetime Atmospheric Achievement Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003.
Johnson was written about frequently in the business press. In 1999 The New York Times published a three-page piece on his enduring legacy at the family company -- and his plan to solve the succession problem by splitting S.C. Johnson into a family of companies -- each unit headed by a member of the next generation of Johnsons. The enterprises are: S.C. Johnson, A Family Company, a leading global manufacturer and marketer of household products; Johnson Diversey, a leading global supplier of cleaning, maintenance, disinfectant and sanitizing products and services for commercial and industrial customers; Johnson Outdoors Inc., a leading world supplier of innovative outdoor recreational products; and Johnson Financial Group Inc., a global financial services company with 34 locations in the United States, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
The S.C. Johnson Fund, the grant-making arm of Johnson Diversey and S.C. Johnson, donates an average of 5 percent of U.S. pre-tax profits yearly to increase economic, environmental and social well-being locally and globally. At the end of 2003, Johnson Family Enterprises had combined estimated annual revenues of $8 billion, employed more than 28,000 people and provided services and products in 110 countries.
In addition to his wife, Johnson is survived by four children, all of them Cornellians: Curtis Johnson '77, Helen Johnson-Leipold '78, Fisk Johnson '79 and Winifred Johnson Marquart '81.