|By Chris Winston, Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 9, 2004 - George Dean Johnson is burning up.
But he's not yet ready to talk about the flames. It's no secret that Johnson, who will complete the sale of Spartanburg-based Extended Stay America this week for $3.2 billion, has big plans for the future.
But he's not talking about it.
"I'm on fire now," said Johnson, who started the hotel chain nine years ago. "But I can't let you see in my shoebox yet." Apparently, Johnson's shoebox is full.
He constantly carries pieces of paper in his pocket with ideas, opportunities, names and phone numbers on them. But he's not sharing them.
Johnson said some of those ideas might start coming to fruition as early as this week, when the Extended Stay's sale to affiliates of the New York-based Blackstone Group will net him more than $150 million. He said he and his staff are well skilled at building a company, expanding it nationwide and controlling its costs. And those skills may very well serve him and Spartanburg soon.
"We're looking at a lot of deals and opportunities," Johnson said.
"We're looking at two or three things.
"But this is a 'no' business. You've got to go through a lot of 'no's' before you find the right opportunity."
Johnson is known among his executives for his enthusiasm when starting a new business.
Over the years, he has built the largest Blockbuster Video franchise, has served as president of Blockbuster's consumer products division and serves as managing member of American Storage. He also started Advance America and Johnson Development Associates, which are both based in Spartanburg.
Corry Oakes, the president of Extended Stay America and 15-year Johnson devotee, has seen the flames before.
"He brings an energy to life every day," said Oakes, who went to work with Johnson at his Blockbuster Video franchise, WJB Video, after graduating from Wofford College.
"He has an energy growing companies and growing people."
Oakes said he is one of those people.
"He has been a teacher, mentor (and) friend," he said. "It's not very often that you get to be with people like him." While Oakes appears to be a part of Johnson's future, whatever that might be, he's not talking either.
"I don't want to steal his thunder," Oakes said. Bob Brannon, the former president of Extended Stay America who left the company after suffering a stroke in 2002, remembers those flames quite vividly.
"It's exciting, but it's tough," said Brannon, who now works on deals for Johnson's development business. "He knows what he wants to do, and he's out there trying to make it happen."
Brannon said Johnson works hard to match the available people -- usually displaced executives from a previous company -- with the right opportunity at one of his companies.
"(The executives) are looking for an opportunity to increase their welfare, and (Johnson) is too," Brannon said. "It helps both parties. "He knows what the people are capable of doing and what their skills are."
Jeff Horowitz, director of marketing and communications with The Capital Corporation in Spartanburg, believes that Johnson gets fired up by the launch of each new business venture.
Horowitz spent several years with Johnson as he was growing WJB Video into Blockbuster's largest franchise.
Horowitz said Johnson really seemed to enjoy the start-up and building of an organization.
"(At the beginning,) he spent a great deal of time in the stores talking to associates at all levels and customers, gleaning their thoughts and ideas on how to make the business better for them," Horowitz said. Once success came and the franchise went into operating mode, Horowitz believes Johnson really missed that growth period. And that's why Horowitz thinks another Johnson business opportunity is just around the corner.
"He really loves to develop businesses, grow them to a point, and then look for the next entrepreneurial opportunity to dive into," he said. While Johnson isn't sharing the details of his next venture, he will confess to two things.
"I know that Spartanburg will be our home," he said. "And the only thing not for negotiation or sale is my wife (Susu Johnson)."
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(c) 2004, Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, S.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. ESA, BBI,