George P. Johnson Company History

Address:
3600 Giddings Road
Auburn Hills, Michigan 48326
U.S.A.

Telephone: (248) 475-2500
Fax: (248) 475-2324

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1914
Employees: 1,000
Sales: $300 million (2003 est.)
NAIC: 541850 Display Advertising; 541613 Marketing Consulting Services

Company Perspectives:

The goal of every GPJ program is to create a unique brand experience that measurably moves prospects closer to purchase, as well as current customers into deeper relationships. GPJ engineers face-to-face experiences that motivate prospects, engage them in conversation and stimulate them to action. This expertise has made GPJ the world's largest independent integrated event marketing resource.

Key Dates:

1914:
George P. Johnson Co. is established in Detroit to repair sails and make flags.

1910s:Johnson begins doing work for Detroit Auto Shows.
1956:
Johnson works on its first international auto show in New York.
1985:
The company opens a new office in Los Angeles.
1989:
A second production facility is added in L.A.
1992:
The company wins the account of Chrysler International.
1996:
A new headquarters is built in Auburn Hills, Michigan; Robert Vallee, Jr., is named CEO.
1998:
Johnson wins IBM's worldwide event marketing account.
1999:
The company acquires Raumtechnik of Stuttgart, Germany.
2000:
A stake is bought in Conference Planners of California.
2001:
Designtroupe is acquired. installed at the historic palace. The year also saw GPJ join with others in the event marketing industry to form a trade group called the Event & Experience Marketing Council. One of its initial tasks would be the development of tools to measure the relative success of event marketing activities. By now GPJ's annual revenues had grown to top $300 million.

The 2003 NAIAS again featured a series of elaborate automotive displays from the firm, with new clients this year including Lamborghini and BMW. In April GPJ helped put on the IBM PartnerWorld conference in New Orleans for 2,500 attendees, and in June the firm's Designtroupe unit presented an Australian conference for Rotary International that featured a 131-foot projection screen and appearances by wood-chopping champion David Foster and several popular vocalists.

In June of 2003 GPJ announced a new joint event marketing venture with Mitsuya, Inc. of Japan, which would employ 50. It took the place of the firm's Tokyo office, which had been opened in April of 2000. A new survey of corporations co-sponsored by the company found that the number of events in which they participated was increasing, with this growth particularly evident in the healthcare and automotive industries. By now half of GPJ's client base was drawn from nonautomotive companies such as IBM, Siebel, MGM, Cisco Systems, and PeopleSoft. During the year the firm was named one of the top 25 marketing agencies in the world by Advertising Age magazine.

As it neared a century in business, the George P. Johnson Co. was experiencing its greatest growth ever. The firm's historic dependence on the auto industry had abated as new contracts were won from companies in a variety of other industries. As corporations increasingly turned to events to market their products, the company's position as one of the world's leading providers of event marketing services placed it in a strong position for continued success.

Company History:

The George P. Johnson Company (GPJ) is one of the world's leading event marketing firms. The company is best known for the many eye-catching displays it has created for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, but in recent years it has expanded internationally and gained new, nonautomotive clients like IBM and Samsung. The privately held firm has production facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan; Torrance, California; and Stuttgart, Germany, as well as offices on both U.S. coasts and in Europe and Asia. GPJ produces more than 4,000 events each year.

Early Years

The George P. Johnson Co. was founded in 1914 by its namesake in Detroit, Michigan as a flag-making and sail-repair shop. George Johnson, age 25, had been involved with the Detroit Auto Show as early as 1910, and his new company continued to do work for the auto industry's annual exhibits of new vehicles. Over the following decades Johnson also began to produce banners, flags, and bunting for parade floats and special exhibits. As displays at the Auto Show became more and more elaborate, the company established itself as one of their leading creators.

In 1956 GPJ helped produce the first International Auto Show in New York, and in 1961 the firm introduced the first vehicle display turntable, which soon became a staple of such events. The company also had Detroit's Woodward Avenue "paved with gold" to help celebrate the auto industry's 50th anniversary.

In 1976 Johnson's grandson Robert G. Vallee, Jr., began working for the company, and two years later he was appointed head of production. In 1980, in his new job of account executive, he was assigned American Honda, one of the first foreign carmakers with which the company had worked. In 1985 the growing GPJ opened an office in Los Angeles, and with Vallee's help the new unit gained assignments from important clients like Toyota and Nissan. Because of the increasing amount of work it was doing on the West Coast, in 1989 GPJ built a second production facility there. The company was now beginning to attract clients outside of the automotive industry, and also was working to develop its consulting capabilities.

Expansion to Europe in 1995

The early 1990s saw GPJ open new offices in Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, and also win the account of Chrysler International. The latter assignment led the firm to open its first European office in Brussels, Belgium in 1995. That same year saw the formation of the Rutchik Group in Boston, which designed interiors for chain restaurants like Boston Market and Burger King. By now GPJ's annual revenues had grown to more than $100 million, and the company employed between 300 and 500, depending on seasonal needs.

The year 1996 saw many changes for the firm. In March its main headquarters and production operation were moved from Madison Heights, Michigan to a new 300,000-square-foot facility in the Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills. In addition to administrative, sales, and design offices, the new building included a 36,000-square-foot state-of-the-art paint shop and 100,000 square feet of warehouse space to store client exhibits. A few months later GPJ also opened a new office in San Jose, California to serve the growing exhibition needs of Silicon Valley. New contracts were soon won with Cisco Systems, Siebel, and Intel. Also during the year Robert Vallee, Jr., by now the firm's president, gained the additional title of CEO.

GPJ's clients now included 40 different Fortune 500 companies, and although 90 percent of sales was still derived from the auto industry the firm was actively seeking to diversify. Major accounts included General Motors, Chrysler, Frigidaire, Sunrise Medical Co., and Warner Brothers.

The company's highest profile activity continued to be the creation of eye-popping displays for the introduction of new vehicles, however. Carmakers traveled to as many as 150 auto shows around the United States each year, and spent $1-$3 million approximately every three years for a new display. Each one was custom-made and incorporated the latest developments in attention-grabbing technology like simulated-motion and virtual reality. The largest displays were more than 10,000 square feet in size and were constructed in modules that could be configured to fit the space in which they were assembled.

Winning IBM's Worldwide Account in 1998

In June of 1998 GPJ scored a major coup when it was selected by IBM to perform all of the computer maker's exhibition management services worldwide. IBM had worked previously with more than 50 different agencies, but, seeking to cut costs, awarded the entire account to GPJ. The $40 million assignment would add more than 1,000 business shows and events to the company's schedule. The year 1998 also saw GPJ form a strategic alliance with National Commerce Bank Services to begin designing bank branches for location inside supermarkets and retail stores.

In 1999 the company's offerings for the recently renamed North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit included a 42,000-square-foot exhibit for Chrysler, Plymouth, and Jeep that utilized a two-tiered structure, a rotating turntable suspended above the floor, and telescopes that visitors could peer through to see cars, videos, graphics, and company awards. Subaru's GPJ-built entry depicted a Pennsylvania forest on a spring day and included trees, a waterfall, and a pond. Scent machines and sound effects completed the illusion. Other exhibits were constructed for Cadillac, Honda/Acura, Saturn, Toyota, Nissan/Infiniti, and Saab, whose display used 60 tons of ice that was kept intact for 22 days with a massive, custom-designed cooling system.

In March of 1999 GPJ bought a majority stake in Raumtechnik Messebau GmbH of Stuttgart, Germany, which was subsequently renamed Raumtechnik Messebau & Event Marketing GmbH. The newly acquired firm, which had 100 employees and $18 million in annual sales, had a long history of executing trade shows and events for clients like Bosch, DaimlerChrysler, and Zeiss. Just two months later GPJ bought a minority stake in Project Worldwide, a London-based creative communications agency with 35 employees and $14 million in annual sales. Both of these moves were made to help the firm service its IBM account. The year also saw GPJ triple the size of its California facility in the L.A. suburb of Torrance and consolidate three separate offices there into a single 170,000-square-foot building.

For the 2000 NAIAS the firm once again built exhibits for many of the participating companies, adding Audi and Lexus to the ten it had worked for the previous year. One of the show's highlights was Chrysler's exhibit, which featured live performances by the acrobatic troupe Artistry in Motion. In April GPJ bought a large stake in Conference Planners of Burlingame, California, a 20-year-old provider of event management and web-based registration services.

The year 2001 saw the firm build an exhibit for the Camp Jeep Celebration in Virginia, which featured the largest free-flying American flag ever displayed. The 160- by 90-foot flag was suspended from a construction crane at the event, which saw the launch of the new Jeep Liberty.

Going Down Under in 2001

In September of 2001 GPJ acquired an Australian company called Designtroupe, which was the leading event marketing agency in the Asia-Pacific region. It had offices in Sydney and Singapore. Two months later the firm also reached an agreement with Shobiz, Inc. of India to form a joint venture that would serve clients in its region. By this time GPJ also had opened offices in Milan, Paris, and Tokyo.

A study sponsored by the firm in the fall found that nearly half of the companies surveyed felt that event marketing yielded a better return on investment than advertising or sales promotion. More than a third of the participants also stated that they would increase their budget in this category by an average of 23 percent the next year.

The 2002 NAIAS featured another set of dramatic displays from GPJ including Toyota's "Mediascape," a multimedia show with a musical score that emphasized the firm's new "Get The Feeling" tagline. In July the company formed a joint venture in China with Highteam Public Relations Co. Ltd. of Beijing, an event marketing firm with 110 employees and offices in three cities. It was one of the top ten firms of its type in the country. The venture, which was named George P. Johnson - HighTeam Event Marketing Company Limited, would provide services for such clients as IBM and Nissan.

In the fall of 2002 GPJ launched a mobile marketing campaign for the new Saturn ION. Four 50-foot trailers, which contained interactive video games, vehicle displays, tenting, and inflatable marketing displays, would be deployed at events like college football games and concerts. They would spend 40 weeks touring the United States. The firm had earlier used an inflatable Dodge Ram Pickup truck at a 23-concert Aerosmith tour, and also created Jeep Liberty and Chrysler PT Cruiser dirigibles for use at other events.

In November of 2002 the company helped execute a marketing conference for Samsung at the Chateau de Versailles near Paris for which a special projection screen and stage were

Further Reading:

  • Fitzgerald, Kate, "Event Marketing Seeks Measurement: Trade Group Formed to Discuss a System to Rate ROI for Events," Advertising Age, September 2, 2002, p. 6.
  • Fletcher, Mike, "Report Uncovers Marketing Switch to Standalone Events," Marketing Event, May 20, 2003, p. 6.
  • Gargaro, Paul, "Exhibiting Headway: Johnson Co. Plans to Rake in New Clients," Crain's Detroit Business, December 2, 1996, p. 3.
  • Geist, Laura Clark, "Event Marketing Reigns Supreme: Survey Reveals Special Promotions Reap Best Rewards," Automotive News, December 10, 2001, p. M2.
  • Johnson, Bradley, "IBM Consolidates Trade Show Duties at One Event Agency," Advertising Age, June 8, 1998, p. 51.
  • "U.S. Motor-Show Coordinator to Launch Venture with Mitsuya," Nikkei Weekly, June 2, 2003.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.60. St. James Press, 2004.