People - April 2007

Crane company exec has given RTI a lift
By Chris Roush
You couldn’t blame Earl Johnson Jr. for sticking with the plan at RTI International. It generated $546.3 million in revenue for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, up 16.8% from the previous year. He’s been on the nonprofit research organization’s board since 1972 and its chairman — just its second — since 1993.

But Johnson, 75, has been pushing for change at the nonprofit, founded in 1958 as Research Triangle Institute — still its official name — to use expertise at Duke, N.C. State and UNC Chapel Hill. Though his job is mostly an advisory one, he has helped plan a $100 million overhaul of RTI’s 180-acre Research Triangle Park campus. That’s in addition to a $20 million, 78,000-square-foot lab and office building — named after him — that opened in September. Moreover, he wants RTI to alter its business mix and pick up more commercial work.

Of its fiscal 2006 revenue, more than 60% — $338.5 million — came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development. That includes a four-year, $300 million contract to teach Iraqis to govern, including how to create school boards and utility departments and how to tax residents. Just 9.1% of revenue came from commercial contracts. “You can find government work in the federal registry. The commercial work, you have to go out and sell.” Clients include drug companies such as Bristol-Meyers Squib, Elan Pharmaceutical and Pfizer. It has about 2,600 employees — 2,100 at RTP.

Johnson knows something about changing business focus. Born and raised in Raleigh, he graduated from Carolina in 1954 with a bachelor’s in political science. After two years in the Navy, he went to work at his father’s insurance agency. “The problem was that I wasn’t interested in selling insurance.” In 1962, he quit, borrowed $150,000 to buy a crane and, because he had been selling insurance to contractors, went into the construction business. By 1970, Carolina Crane was renting a dozen cranes. Now Southern Industrial Constructors, it has more than 700 employees in varied business lines, with yards in Raleigh, Wilmington and Columbia, S.C. He wouldn’t disclose revenue.

Johnson, who joined the RTI board at the urging of a friend, is confident the nonprofit can change. He says it often has veered from the safe path, such as when it spun off Morrisville-based Ziptronix and RTP-based Nextreme Thermal Solutions. He plans to step down as chairman in three years. “Younger people should have a chance to bring in new ideas.”