Janis Johnson, this year’s Housewares Charity Foundation honoree as Specialty Retailer Humanitarian, is president and founder of Gourmet Catalog & Buying Group, the industry’s largest and longest running specialty retail buying group. HOMEWORLD BUSINESS® recently spoke with Ms. Johnson who shared her views on business, leadership and the importance of charitable works.
HomeWorld Business: Can you share with our readers a bit of your background as it relates to the founding and growth of Gourmet Catalog? Who were your mentors and role models, the people who helped get you started and provided your inspiration to succeed?
Janis Johnson: I owned a kitchenware store with a cooking school for five years prior to starting Gourmet Catalog. GC literally grew out of one passion (cooking) and one talent (graphic design). Creating a catalog for gourmet stores was a natural combination of the two, along with the buying experience I gained as an independent store owner. Joel McLendon, a name well-known among veterans in the industry, played an important role in the beginning of GC, through his encouragement and by convincing me that he would provide any help I needed to get started. Luckily for me, after I took the plunge the first thing Joel told me was that I did not need him, forcing me to sprout my own wings. Joel died a couple of years ago at age 98 and throughout his life he continued looking forward, rather than focusing on the past. His attitude and general outlook inspired me in many ways. Without question, others have contributed to my success along the way: store owners, vendor principals, and of course members of my family.
HWB: What lessons would you say you’ve learned from your Gourmet Catalog experience, both in terms of building a business but also in terms of growing as a leader of your team?
JJ: With failure never an option, success always was dependent on remaining relevant to my customers. GC has done an excellent job of staying up with the times and being responsive to our store and vendor members. Technology has had its pluses and minuses for small independent retailers and we have been sensitive to the ever-changing climate. My leadership style has remained the same throughout my career. Integrity and honesty are fundamental to conducting the day-to-day business of GC. I have learned that you cannot control everything and you cannot please everyone. While you cannot control what people think about you, you can control what they should think about you. Staying focused on your business is an important key to success and to trusted leadership.
HWB: Many people view their involvement with the Housewares Charity Foundation as an opportunity to “give back” to the industry and to others, the support, help and encouragement they received in their own careers. How would you describe your philosophy as it relates to “giving back” or helping others?
JJ: Giving back should be a part of everyone’s daily life. Each day you have the opportunity to help someone, either in business or in personal situations, sometimes both. I care deeply and sincerely about people and am humbled by the problems and adversity many overcome to achieve success. I love helping people reach their goals. My philosophy is that something good happens every day. Sometimes you have to think really hard to figure out the good— you just know it’s there to find.
HWB: Are there specific anecdotes or instances in your career that you can share that have helped shape your view of charitable works and their role in business?
JJ: In conjunction with this wonderful honor I will be receiving from the industry, fundraising for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation was an easy choice for me to make, since this is a disease that has an impact on every person in the world today. In most cases I separate my personal charity work from my business because I don’t like the idea of projecting personal viewpoints onto others. GC is like a big family and our events are like family reunions that just happen to have a very distinct and positive business influence. Because we work with independent retailers all across the country, each of them, just as I do, has a special interest in their individual community. GC fully supports our store and vendor members in all cause marketing efforts.
HWB: What causes or charities are most meaningful to you? How have your life experiences helped shaped this view?
JJ: Charities are like political and religious affiliations— better kept apart from business. I have supported and fundraised for so many charities over my lifetime. They range from the curing of disease to raising human awareness about little known issues. My personal commitment to these important special efforts definitely makes me a better person.
JJ: Future leaders will be judged in ways very different from today’s leaders. My advice to anyone in a leadership role is that you should strive to be realistic and practical minded. Learn everything you can about the business you’re in, be kind, and be a good listener. You can absorb so much of value when you’re not doing all the talking. Learn by doing and lead by example. Success comes when you do the right thing, which may not always be the same as doing things by the books. I would like to be remembered in just the way I think people see me now. A GC vendor once told me that in his mind I ruled with an iron hand in a velvet glove. I rather like that analogy.