George Dean Johnson, Jr. | Legacy of Leadership Interview


George Dean Johnson, Jr. 

(1942 - )

George Dean Johnson, a man of immense talent and versatility—former practicing attorney, legislator, State Development Board chairman, state Chamber of Commerce president—is one of the nation's most successful entrepreneurs. 

George Dean Johnson, Jr., was born July 22, 1942, in Spartanburg, the eldest of three sons of the late Dr. George Dean and Betty Heath Johnson. He has two brothers, Stewart H. and Edwin W. "Ned" Johnson II.

He graduated from Spartanburg High School, received a degree in history from Wofford College in 1964 and a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1967.

He joined the law firm of his uncle, Edwin W. Johnson, and Milton Smith in 1967, and practiced law until 1986, when he devoted full time to his business interests.

Johnson served three terms in the South Carolina House of Representatives, from 1969 through 1974, and enjoys the distinction of having been elected as an independent, as a Democrat, and as a Republican.

From 1974 to 1978, he served as chairman of the State Development Board, an appointee of Governor John West, with successor Governor James Edwards' endorsement.

One of Johnson's earliest business investment opportunities was Morgan Corporation, a grading contracting business owned by Ladson Morgan, who was hired to build a lake on 1,100 acres the Johnson brothers and their father owned.

Because of his health, Morgan was forced to sell his business, and George and Stewart Johnson bought it in 1971. Today, Stewart Johnson operates Morgan Corporation, one of the largest grading companies in the Southeast.

Three years later, with borrowed capital, the brothers established Johnson Waste to compete with Waste Management Incorporated for the refuse collection and disposal business in the Upstate. In 1978, Waste Management bought Johnson Waste, and Wayne Huizenga and Dean Buntrock, Waste Management partners, and the Johnsons have been good friends ever since.  

While practicing law, Johnson was involved in numerous business activities, including the establishment of Morgan State Bank and the development of Carolina Country Club.

Johnson is chairman of Johnson Development Associates, which controls four million square feet of industrial office and retail space in the Carolinas. He is chairman of Advance America Cash Advance Centers, which has more than 700 branches nationwide, and he is managing general partner of American Storage Limited, a chain of 26 mini-warehouses.

When efforts were being made to lure BMW Corporation to South Carolina, Johnson & Associates spent several months obtaining options on the properties that made up the 1,200-acre site, at no charge to the state.

In 1982, Johnson served as president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, and from 1984 to 1985 was a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

In 1985, Wayne Huizenga and two associates bought Blockbuster Video, an 18-store chain, as a franchising opportunity. Johnson, Dean Buntrock, and the late Craig Wall, Jr., of Conway formed WJB Video and acquired Blockbuster franchise rights for the Carolinas, most of Georgia, and Virginia.

As WJB managing partner, and operating from the Johnson & Associates offices in Spartanburg, Johnson began building stores, which eventually numbered 208. WJB Video was Blockbuster's largest franchisee. 

WJB merged with Blockbuster in 1993, and Johnson and his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he served as a Blockbuster division president and board member. The following year, Viacom, Inc., bought Blockbuster for $8.4 billion.

In Fort Lauderdale, prior to Blockbuster's sale to Viacom, Johnson developed the concept for Extended Stay America, where guests would represent a wide spectrum of business and personal travelers searching for high-quality, affordable lodging on the road.

Wayne Huizenga liked the idea and became a major investor and chairman of the Extended Stay board, with Johnson the president and chief executive officer.

The first hotel opened in August 1995 in Spartanburg, and the company went public in December 1995. In April 1999, the company owned 335 hotels in 38 states, with others under construction and additional sites under option.

Johnson is a director of Extended Stay America, AutoNation, Inc., Florida Panthers Holdings, Inc., Duke Energy Corporation, William Barnet & Son, Inc., and Morgan Corporation, Inc. 

On May 24, 1980, he married Susan "Susu" Phifer, the daughter of Dr. Edward W. and Mary Adair Phifer of Morganton, North Carolina. They had met when Susan Phifer was a student at Converse College and Johnson was at Wofford. They are the parents of a son, George D. Johnson III, and a daughter, Susanna Presnell Johnson.

Johnson and his wife, a former member of the Spartanburg City Council, were active in the Spartanburg community before they moved to Fort Lauderdale, and continue to support the community and their alma maters.  

They contributed $1.5 million to Wofford to endow a visiting professorship in history and donated $15 million to Converse as a matching gift. Johnson is a member and former chairman of the Converse College Board of Trustees.  

The Johnsons are members of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg and attended All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale. They returned to Spartanburg in the summer of 1999.  

Johnson was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1999.  

© 1999 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame