Trustee Profile: Wick Johnson

Published: Thursday, July 13, 2017

Q: Tell us about Kennebec Technologies. You manufacture high-precision machine products – what happens to those products after they leave Kennebec Technologies?

A: We make precision components for aerospace firms and companies that provide major systems for them. We have parts on virtually all Boeing and Airbus airframes and engines. Our parts are in the hot section of jet engines and mechanical systems.

Q: You bought the company in 1984. What prompted you to see it as an investment at the time, and what was your vision for the company?

A: After college, I moved to Maine and spent five years teaching sixth grade in rural Oxford County. During that time, I also did carpentry and then started selling and building log and post and beam homes.

I eventually wanted to get involved in manufacturing. A cluster of machine shops sprang up in Maine to provide parts for the large aerospace, defense, and technology companies in Southern New England – including Kennebec Tool & Die, now Kennebec Technologies. We manufactured structural panels for Boeing and were about to begin producing fuel cell components for the Space Shuttle. I joined it in 1982 in sales and management, learned the business, and purchased it two years later.

I was attracted to the company because the products were unique, and it had the potential to be consistently profitable and offer high-end manufacturing jobs. It was a good values match for me. My goal was to build on the founders’ accomplishments and make it a more sophisticated company with a national reputation.

Q: As you worked to achieve that vision, were there any surprising challenges? How did you handle them?

A: Owning a business is humbling. Things can change quickly; it’s hard to forecast, and it’s important to be ready for changes – even when you can’t anticipate them. Just when you think you know it all, something turns your model upside down, and you have to adapt quickly or go out of business. You have to have faith; if you do the right thing, manage conservatively, and stick with a course you believe in, opportunity will come – often when you least expect it.

Q: Last year, you began the process of selling Kennebec Technologies to your employees. Why?

A: I always wanted Kennebec Technologies to remain a locally owned, Maine company. Passing the company to the next generation of family was not an option, and there were no employees in line to buy it. The idea of setting up an Employee Trust, an ESOP, to buy the shares of the company was very appealing. It allows me to gradually reduce my commitment and transition the company to employee and board control. Being able to own a company and play a role in the community is an honor, and the possibility of the legacy continuing is compelling to me.

Q: What interested you in joining the Thomas College Board of Trustees?

A: I was very lucky that my family valued education, but traditional education was not easy for me. If I had not received a lot of support and encouragement, I would never have graduated from college; but, the diploma I received has made everything else I have done possible. When I taught school, it was all too clear that many students would struggle to live up to their potential; they faced so many challenges. When I began working at Kennebec Tool & Die, I saw that our employees were often first in their families to graduate from high school and/or community college and that they had higher aspirations for their children. Thomas College understands how critical this mission is, and I wanted to be in the conversation. There is no more important work.

Q: How does Thomas play a role in supporting Central Maine businesses and the Maine economy?

A: Thomas is the right place at the right time for students with aspirations and ability but who might not have an easy path to a college degree. Thomas is an aspiration institution, and in many ways, our goals mirror our Thomas Trustee students’ goals. Thomas’s work is bigger than just being a part of the economy. Also, as important as our role of supporting business is, I think the Education degree and the MS in Education have the potential to be equally influential in Maine and to be part of the national dialog about K-12 education.

Q: What advice would you offer to today’s students?

A: Be intentional. Life is made up of small steps, and it really helps if you know the direction you want them to take you. And, never lose your sense of wonder.

*This was originally published in the Spring 2017 Thomas Magazine.

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