Geordy Johnson came home to become CEO of his family business, and continue his parents’ passion for improving quality of life in Spartanburg
With his side-swept blond hair, polished suit and genuine smile, George Dean “Geordy” Johnson III is a symbol of the new Spartanburg.
As he walks down the hallway of Johnson Development’s headquarters in downtown, the 33-year-old CEO sees Southern paintings from his family’s collection on one side and the offices for his team members on the other.
The blend of commerce and culture embodies the revitalization of the community and its path forward.
“That’s the amazing thing about Spartanburg,” Johnson said. “At any age you can play a dynamic civic role, and we’re starting to see that more and more. Our citizens, whether they’re from here or transplants from other communities, are stepping up and doing the things that they’re passionate about.”
Johnson is the son of local businessman George Dean Johnson Jr. — namesake of USC Upstate’s George Dean Johnson Jr. School of Business, aka “The George” — and philanthropist Susan “Susu” Phifer Johnson.
At 6 feet 3 inches tall, he has his father’s height and business acumen, as well as the sense of social responsibility and love of Spartanburg shared by both his parents.
“To have a meaningful life, whatever you do, your focus has to be more on helping people,” Johnson said.
On and off the road
Johnson graduated from Spartanburg High School in 2001. After graduating, he left the city to pursue his bachelor’s degree at Washington and Lee University.
While he was an undergraduate, he interned at Allen & Co., a New York City private investment bank.
Johnson went to work for Wachovia Capital Markets, which is now Wells Fargo Securities, in 2005 as an analyst for the company’s defense and aerospace corporate finance group.
In 2007, he joined the commercial real estate firm Black Creek Group as an associate. The job allowed him to live in Denver and Mexico City.
A year later, Johnson returned to Spartanburg to work as an associate at Johnson Management, the parent company of Johnson Development, OTO Development, American Credit Acceptance, JDA West, WJ Partners and The Haven Apartment Communities.
He left Spartanburg again in 2011 to earn his MBA with a concentration in real estate and entrepreneurship from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
That summer, he worked for BlackRock, an asset management firm in Charlotte, N.C.
He went to work in 2013 for AvalonBay Communities in Washington, D.C.
In 2014, he and his wife, Carter, who is from Charleston, were engaged. The couple decided to begin seeking a place to plant their roots, and Spartanburg topped the list.
Growing the family business
Johnson became the chief executive of Johnson Development in March 2015. He also serves as president of Johnson Management.
Under his leadership, the company has begun marketing Flatwood Industrial Park, a business park on more than 1,400 acres of farmland north of Business 85 between Parris Bridge Road and Highway 221. The company said the site has the potential to support about 9 million square feet of speculative and build-to-suit facilities, plus thousands of jobs.
Pennsylvania-based drugstore chain Rite Aid recently opened its $90 million, 900,000-square-foot distribution center that employs 600 at the park.
Johnson said his company is building a nearly 363,000-square-foot spec building next to Rite Aid.
Johnson Management’s affiliated companies employ thousands in Spartanburg. Hundreds more work for the companies his father brought to Spartanburg, including Pure Barre and Advance America.
OTO Development is building the $20 million, 10-story AC Hotel by Marriott at the corner of West Main Street and Daniel Morgan Avenue. The anticipated completion of that project is 2018.
Poised for success
Johnson said several other developments across the county have the potential to reshape the community in the coming years.
His shortlist includes the Hub City Co-op, the state’s first cooperatively owned grocery store that opened in April in downtown.
“Yes, we need white-collar jobs,” he said. “But we also need the housing to support that and the amenities to support those who choose to live in downtown.”
Johnson said he is excited about the proposed renovation of the historic Montgomery Building at the corner of St. John and Church streets.
The completion of several residential projects, as well as the opening and announcement of new retail and dining options, are signs of progress, he said.
Beyond downtown, Johnson said he has been encouraged by the referendum in Spartanburg School District 7 that will allow for construction of a new Spartanburg High School and an elementary school in the Drayton community.
The county’s decision to share tax revenue generated from economic development between the seven school districts is also a positive.
He believes Spartanburg is poised for success in the manufacturing and distribution sectors.
“I think we’re going to be very competitive. We have a great workforce and excellent leadership. We have access to two major interstates and great proximity to the airport and inland port. We’re close to Atlanta and Charlotte … It’s an exciting time to be in Spartanburg.”
But Johnson said the county must still focus on attracting “knowledge-based” white-collar jobs.
He said growth in Spartanburg’s cultural and artistic communities has been nothing short of remarkable.
“[Living abroad] gives you a huge appreciation for some of the things that are often taken for granted in Spartanburg,” Johnson said. “We have a great quality of life, great schools and great people.”
Local leaders have expressed their admiration for Johnson and excitement for his decision to remain in Spartanburg.
“I’ve known Geordy since I coached him in tee-ball,” said County Councilman David Britt. “I’ve seen him grow far beyond his age; the maturation of someone who is going to be a leader cut from the same cloth as his parents, who are all about improving the quality of life of the community. He is emblematic of what the new Spartanburg is all about: giving back and making this a better place to live, work and play.”