It’s Your Business: The Charlotte Post owners protect family business’ legacy

If the thought of running a family business seems like fun, well, it can be. Just ask brothers Bob and Gerald Johnson. This year they mark 40 years of The Charlotte Post as a family-run newspaper.

The paper traces its roots to the late 1800s, but it was in 1974 that their father, Bill Johnson, used a city-backed small-business loan to buy the Post that survives today.

The brothers say the past four decades have been instructive.

Their top advice for anyone starting a family business: Everyone can’t be the boss.

“As long as all parties understand their position in the whole, then it works,” said Bob Johnson, the older of the two. “Somebody is going to have to be the man in charge. You can’t have two.”

Ironically, neither man saw himself as their father’s successor. Bob was a committed educator, teaching the sixth grade, while Gerald, a banker, resisted their father’s early efforts to lure him into publishing.

All that changed in 1986 when Bill Johnson, who suffered secretly from acute leukemia, passed away.

Since then, the brothers have worked side by side to manage the city’s oldest and largest African-American newspaper, with Gerald holding the title of publisher/CEO and Bob working as publisher/general manager.

Neither questions the fact that Gerald, the former banker, is the man in charge. At least three other family members also work for the paper.

“At least you know that you can trust the people that you have around you, because they have a vested interest in the success of the business,” Gerald Johnson said. “One thing about family members … they will tell you the truth, and that helps the business in good times as well as bad.”

The brothers publish the paper from a small space near South End, where they constantly joke and needle one another as only brothers can. Bob insists that their father chose Gerald to run the company because Gerald was smarter.

“That’s not true,” Gerald retorted. “Well it’s true, but I don’t like to say that.”

Humor aside, the brother say working as family doesn’t negate difficult talks or difficult decisions, like the time Gerald fired a relative because she was “just messing up.” For about six months, he said, their relationship was strained.

“We’ve always been a very tightknit family,” he said. “We were brought up in a family atmosphere that was very, very close. We could have disagreement and still move on without there being that much of a conflict.”

As for the next generation of Johnsons, the brothers say no one has stepped forward as an heir apparent, which lays heavily on both of their minds.

“They’ve got to grow the passion for doing it,” Gerald Johnson said. “I didn’t have the passion until I came in here and actually had to take this seat.”

Aside from laying out some clear-set rules, Gerald Johnson said the other key to running a family-owned business is love.

“If you don’t have that close relationship, then it’s going to be very, very difficult to make a family business work,” he said. “It really will be.”