Al Johnson was a giant among African-American new car dealers and helped open doors for many others to follow. For twenty-eight years, he was both an Oldsmobile (1967-1971) and Cadillac (1971-1995) dealer, the first African-American to hold both of these GM franchises. His story is one of perseverance and vision and 'making a difference' in a number of areas for black dealers who followed.
Born in St. Louis, Johnson acquired a degree in hospital administration. Believing he could make more money pursuing other business opportunities, he turned to the new car business. In 1954, he was hired by Noting Oldsmobile in Kirkwood, Missouri on the basis that "I could not sell from the dealership but would have to sell within the community" Again, the belief being held by the white dealer that "blacks could best sell to blacks." He was not permitted to sell from the dealership premises.
Johnson accepted the challenge. It wasn't long before Johnson earned the reputation of being the 'salesman who sold from a briefcase" and he was highly successful in doing so.
With continuing personnel and racial problems at the dealership, Johnson moved to Brock Oldsmobile in 1962 and continued his selling practices. It was here, he met representatives from Oldsmobile Division who encouraged him to stay in the business. With this support, Johnson concluded that it would be just a matter of time before African-Americans would get the chance to become dealers. He was going to be ready when it happened.
The year was 1967. Johnson was contacted by the Chicago Oldsmobile Regional Sales Office and he was offered the opportunity of replacing Ray Oldsmobile located at 74th & Halstead in Chicago. Although the dealership had been losing money, it was believed that Johnson, with his 14 years of selling, could make it work. Johnson agreed. On August 1, 1967, Al Johnson became the first African-American to be awarded a new car franchise by GM (Oldsmobile).
After rebuilding the dealership organization and making it successful, Johnson was offered the opportunity of becoming the Cadillac dealer in downtown Chicago, an opportunity he couldn't pass up. On June 1, 1971, he was officially franchised. (It is appropriate to note that the replacement for Johnson at his Olds dealership was another African-American, Rufus Dukes, who was also successful.)
Within a short period of time, Johnson received permission to relocate his Cadillac operation to Tinsley Park, about 20 minutes from his existing location, where he built state-of-the-art facilities on five and half acres of prime property. He remained there until 1995 when he sold the Cadillac business concluding 41 years of selling cars and trucks (23 as a salesman and 18 as a dealer).
Importantly, Al Johnson also made a number of major contributions while he was a dealer. He was a primary catalyst for industry African-American dealers coming together in 1970 to establish the first minority dealer organization (NBADA). Working with GM management, he suggested the need for minority dealer training.
This lead to the establishment of GM's Minority Dealer Training Academy, an 18 month training program, which provided minorities a compacted view of the retail business. This training concept, launched in June of 1972, became the standard in the industry.
In 1974, Johnson was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the top dealers in the country and honored with its prestigious Quality Dealer Award. And lastly, his involvement in numerous business and philanthropic aspects of the Chicago community are extensive - Al Johnson gave back to the "Windy City" community which had supported him as a dealer.
When one reads the full business life experience of Albert Williams Johnson, you recognize that he was truly an African-American business icon - an individual who made a difference.