Valerie Johnson on the blending of business and politics

There’s a time for a boss to bring politics into the workplace, says Valerie Johnson, chief executive of D.R. Johnson Lumber Co. in Riddle.

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And Johnson found it on a recent ballot. The policy in question had nothing to do with voting for President Donald Trump, whom Johnson describes personally as “arrogant and hostile.”  

Instead, Johnson sent a letter to employees addressing a proposed change to the form of Douglas County government.

The Home Rule Charter measure last November would have restructured county government, replacing three paid commissioners with five unpaid commissioners and an appointed county manager.

Johnson saw the proposal, if approved, as opening the door to “a more liberal-leaning” style of government. “I just gave our employees my thoughts” in the letter, she says.

The proposal failed by a 3-to-1 margin.

Where urban centers like Portland, Eugene and Ashland reliably line up in the Democratic column on statewide elections, Douglas County is just as reliable for Republicans.

Whatever her personal feelings, Trump is also leading an administration that “has been positive not just for business employers but for business employees,” Johnson says.

D.R. Johnson Lumber, of all places, features a product that is offering a figurative bridge between urban and rural Oregon. The company’s laminated products have inspired builders and architects to envision multiple applications of the engineered products.

Johnson’s letter was, for her, a rare blending of business and politics. But she recalls an era, particularly at her company, when messages-from-on-top were more common.

“My dad was much less reserved about communicating through employee letters his political opinions,” she says. “He did it more frequently to let employees know what his thoughts were on elected officials or even just political issues that affected our industry.”

Since then, the owner-worker relationship has changed considerably.

Employees at the lumber company have higher expectations for information from management than previous generations, Johnson says.

In the past, “owners decided how things would happen. And when the time was right, they would tell their employees what would happen,” Johnson says. “That still does, in some ways, have to happen today, although explanations that are appropriately transparent — maybe not overly so — are explained to employees that some changes are going to be made.”

Hiring a competent workforce is more challenging, Johnson says. The company wants to be more flexible with the expectations of a younger workforce but can’t bend the rules for some basics, she says, such as consistently arriving to work on time and refraining from drug use.

This article is part of a feature package on leadership that appears in our May 2018 issue.  To read more in the series, click here.