Integrity. Innovation. Impact.

Norm Johnson

Norm Johnson

Chairman and CEO (retired)


BBA 1971 (Finance)



During a visit to the College, Norm Johnson, BBA 1971, shared a few of the "lessons he has learned along the way" to Tippie students just preparing to launch their careers. Johnson recently retired as chairman and CEO of CLARCOR Inc. (NYSE), a global leader in the filtration industry.

"Employers expect people coming out of business schools to have the analytic business skills. Obviously they are much more proficient in anything to do with a computer than I was, entering the job market," he said. "They know how to build financial models, analyze market share data, understand logistic systems, etc.  Their technical capabilities are a given."

He broke down his advice to several points along the career path.

"When first hired," he said, "don’t play the MBA big shot. People will be apprehensive about you. Go out of your way to learn what others are doing and get to know people at all levels of the organization. Recognize that while your individual contributions are important, so are the efforts of others. In today's world, a big advantage is to get international and multifunctional experience as early as one can in their career," he said.

"I always remind our people to remember the working mothers in our factories. They work hard all day in the factory and all night at home. You are fortunate to have the job you do."

He shared that he has seen many people get to the director or vice president level as a result of their individual performance (brains and hard work) but then their careers stopped or they failed.

"At that stage, people and earlier people skills are the differentiator. Raw skills and ambition become less important than the ability to influence and persuade. The goal is to help others succeed and have them want you to succeed."

He also shared a few other lessons: "Always have more than one source of information and someone to tell you the truth even when you don't want to hear it. There are a lot of people who will tell you what you want to hear. The people who make it to the top have curiosity, a sense of passion, ethics, and the ability to produce results."

During his 20 years with CLARCOR, Johnson helped develop the company's guiding philosophies, which extend to all of CLARCOR's manufacturing and distribution facilities in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America (headquartered in Franklin, Tenn).

"The guiding philosophy is customer service," he says, "knowing who the customer is, what the customer wants, and what the company must do to keep their business."

"We have a program called T3—Target Tackling Triumph—and each supervisor is expected to have a list of three things they can do better in their area," he says. "Groups of people, including the production workers, present their ideas.  We have an open communications system, so we solicit ideas from everyone. If you look at our company's organization chart, you'll see who we put as the two most important positions—the customer and our production workers. We believe if you take care of your customers and people building the product, the company will do okay."

What’s next for Johnson? 

"At age 65 I had to retire," he says. "It will be someone else's turn to take the lead. I look forward to retirement. I may join a couple boards of directors, do Habitat for Humanity, improve my golf game, and attend Hawkeye games. Who knows?"