Captaining the Family Business

Strong work ethic and faculty mentorship help Alex Johnson succeed as a student and business leader.

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Full-time student and full-time employee are two ways to describe senior Mark “Alex” Johnson. Johnson, a management major, splits his time between Christopher Newport and the family business, Shawnee Canning Company, in Cross Junction, in Western Virginia, which he is helping to run.

Shawnee has been family-owned and operated for nearly 200 years, turning out salsas, ciders, barbecue sauce, apple butter and other products. Johnson oversees warehouse duties and Virginia sales. It requires a balancing act and strict time management for him to succeed as a college student and a full-time employee. “I love the challenge of battling school and work and trying to find ways to get both done swiftly and efficiently,” Johnson says.

It’s not a new venture for Johnson – he’s worked at Shawnee since he was 13. “I have an extremely strong passion for the business,” he says. “Whether it’s working in the orchards, warehouse or gas station, I find myself happy every day.”

For Johnson, the family tradition is the most important aspect of Shawnee. “We started in 1828 as a family farm business and have grown into a small corporation that includes hundreds of acres of apples and peach orchards, a fully functioning cannery that makes over 200 food items, and a farm market,” he says, noting that Shawnee has grown especially fast recently. “Over the past four years we’ve gone from shipping 19,000 cases to shipping over 100,000 cases across the United States.” Johnson’s grandfather is in charge of the orchard; Johnson’s mom, Lisa, is the CEO; his brother, Scott is the general manager; and his cousin, David Omps, is production manager.

Balancing the two responsibilities does get overwhelming at times for Johnson. But, with the help of friends and the mentorship of faculty at Christopher Newport, he manages. “The most difficult obstacle is my passion for the business and lack of passion to be four hours away from it,” says Johnson. “But nearly all my professors have understood my position.”

One professor, Dr. William Donaldson, who teaches management and is Johnson’s adviser, helped him face one obstacle in particular: the last few remaining credits he needed to graduate. “Alex would have had to come back to campus for one class, a writing-intensive senior seminar,” says Donaldson. “It just didn't make any sense, so I suggested an independent study. We made it writing-intensive, and he is writing the strategic plan for his family's company in parallel with my strategic management class.” Donaldson adds that it’s CNU’s commitment to the success of students in and out of the classroom that made Johnson’s path possible.“If you want to learn and grow and start down a path of leading a life of significance, you can do it here,” he says. “A lot of universities talk about that, but we actually put it into action.”

With his college career coming to an end Johnson is excited for the future of his family’s growing business. “My future starts with becoming the warehouse general manager and then eventually a split ownership with my brother once we have both experienced and perfected every aspect of the business,” he says.

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