Meet the new STMA President, Allen Johnson, CSFM, Green Bay Packers
By Lynn Grooms
Within a few hours of seeing Allen Johnson literally run between jobs, Steve Hutchison knew the guy was special. Eighteen years later, he feels the same way as Johnson, now fields manager for the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, takes the office of 2015 STMA president. “Allen is quick to grasp the big picture and cuts to the chase. He’s hardworking, intelligent and not afraid to get on with the task at hand,” Hutchison says.
The two men met in 1997 when Hutchison’s company, Tee to Green, had been charged with renovating Lambeau Field. Needing temporary construction workers, Tee to Green had posted a job notice with a local employment agency. Working for a health insurance company in Green Bay at the time and miserable sitting at a cubicle day after day, Johnson regularly visited a local employment agency over his lunch hour. After reading the posting, “See Steve in the construction trailer in the Lambeau Field parking lot,” his life was about to change.
Johnson and Hutchison immediately hit it off, having both served in the military. During the height of the Cold War, Hutchison had been a member of a select team of US Marines charged with protecting Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in Europe. Johnson fought in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm with a US Army artillery unit. “Military service instills discipline to complete a job. Sometimes completing that job is literally a life or death decision,” Hutchison says.
Accustomed to hard work
Working hard at an early age on his family’s dairy farm also helped to build Johnson’s character. The Johnsons managed about two dozen milk cows and 50 young stock. They did not have automatic barn cleaning equipment when Allen was a boy. Johnson recalls loading manure on a wheelbarrow, transporting it to a wagon rack and then pulling the rack with a tractor to the fields to shovel it off for the second time. He also remembers working many a windy, snowy sub-zero day on the farm located 2 hours north of Green Bay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That experience made him mentally strong. Today when he works long days under adverse conditions at Lambeau’s “Frozen Tundra,” Johnson says “nothing will be as hard as those early days as a boy.”
Johnson joined the Army immediately after graduating from high school. He returned home 4 years later and attended Northern Michigan University (NMU) where he received a Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration. Before graduating, he served as an intern at the Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae) in Washington, DC. After graduating from NMU, however, Johnson had difficulty finding a job in his field. That is when he began working at the insurance company.
Being able to work outside rather than inside a cubicle was one of the reasons that Johnson left his insurance job. The ability to put his knowledge of equipment and his initiative to work were likely other reasons, Hutchison says. “He could quickly grasp what we were doing and start moving on it. There are lots of challenges working with sports turf. It requires someone to fully understand and implement what’s needed.”
While working at Lambeau Field, Johnson also began working for UPS. “I would wake up at 4:00 am, go to work at UPS and then work at Lambeau,” he says. When Tee to Green’s renovation of Lambeau was finished, Hutchison asked Johnson if he wanted to stay on and travel with the company to other locations. But, Johnson did not want to leave the area at the time. Fortunately, a position as assistant fields manager for the Packers soon opened up, and Johnson took the job. He worked in this position 2 years before being promoted to fields manager after Todd Edlebeck, his former boss, moved within the Packers organization to become facilities manager.
Soon after his promotion, Johnson enrolled in The Pennsylvania State University’s online turfgrass program and earned an advanced certificate in turfgrass management. “It was one of the first online courses of its kind,” Johnson says, adding that his soils classes were especially valuable. “In football, there are issues with drainage. These classes helped me get a good grasp of soil characteristics.” He used what he had learned in this program to convince Packers management about the value of upgrading Lambeau and its practice fields.
When Johnson first starting working for the Packers, the practice fields had been composed of native soil with a lot of poor-draining clay. The first renovation involved reconstructing the rootzone with a sand base. Then sod was installed. To keep the turf in good playing condition during Green Bay’s short growing season, he also recommended the Desso GrassMaster system which involved injecting artificial fibers into the natural turf. The knitting together of the artificial fibers and the natural grass helps stabilize the root zone, Johnson says.
Johnson eventually got management’s go-ahead to remodel Lambeau and an outdoor synthetic practice field. The players said their legs were more stressed and fatigued playing on the other practice field’s artificial turf and that they did not like changing from one playing surface to another.
Asked about his greatest accomplishments, Johnson says, “Being a dad. I have a great son.” Ethan, 11, does not play football, but his dad points out that he is an excellent swimmer and excels in academics.
Johnson also is proud of the renovation at Lambeau under his direction because it involved communicating his knowledge of field management and its impact on players so that management could make an educated choice. “It matters to me how our employers view us and our value to their organizations,” says Johnson, adding that one of STMA’s goals has been to raise the level of professionalism of the sports turf industry. “Our association can’t go into your place of employment and make management respect you. You need to demonstrate your value. But, STMA can give members the tools they need,” he says. These tools include continuing education programs on how to be better managers, how to communicate scientific principles to executives and so on.
Johnson believes that STMA also took a big step forward when it hired a marketing communications firm to help increase general awareness about the value of the sports turf industry to target audiences, such as school boards, athletic directors, facility management groups, parent-teacher organizations.
“As the sports field manager for the Green Bay Packers—a marketing and promotional machine—Allen brings his expertise from that franchise to STMA’s public relations efforts,” says Kim Heck, CEO of STMA. “I look to Allen to bring his great board skills to the presidency. He is always well-prepared for every board meeting and his style is insightful. He listens very well, but is not afraid to voice his opinions and respectfully disagree. This is what makes the STMA Board so energizing to work with, the vibrant discussions and the board coming to consensus on what is best for the association.”
David Pinsonneault served as STMA president in 2014 and will continue to serve on the board as immediate past president. He agrees that Johnson is straightforward. “You don’t have to guess what he’s thinking.” Pinsonneault’s advice to the new president is to engage the STMA membership. “We’re fortunate to have very active members and we need to keep them involved with different committees and task groups. Fortunately, Allen has great resources and a hardworking staff available to him.”
That staff includes Heck and her team at STMA headquarters as well as Johnson’s three full-time assistants (Derek Paris, Bart Bartelme and Joel Hunt) in Green Bay. Paris has worked with his boss for almost all of Johnson’s tenure with the Packers. Asked about Johnson’s leadership style, Paris says, “Allen is very particular in everything he does at work or in his personal life. He is hands-on and puts 100 percent effort into everything he does. As far as motivating, it’s hard for me to say. I feel that we, as his assistants, are self-motivated. Working for a prestigious organization like the Packers is all the motivation one needs to do a top-notch job at all times. Allen leads with this same belief.”
Johnson can poke fun at himself. Asked what factors go into some of his field management decisions, he says, “It’s probably more my ‘very particular personality’ than my job experience. I’m a bit OCD when it comes to the field.”
You can also get a sense of his humor watching the Coca-Cola commercial in which Johnson appeared during last year’s Super Bowl (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1eyj1qKksPs). Most people would brag about being featured in a national commercial like this, but Johnson was modest, never mentioning it to his peers, Pinsonneault says. During the interview for this article, Johnson also did not mention that the STMA named Lambeau Field its Field of the Year in 2009.
Service to STMA
Johnson’s work on various STMA committees has helped him to get more acquainted with fellow members, and to learn more about the association and what it is trying to accomplish. He has chaired the Awards Committee as well as served on the Scholarship and Membership Committees. He also has served as both secretary-treasurer and chair of the Finance and Audit Committee. The latter, says STMA’s Heck, has provided Johnson “a comprehensive understanding of the association’s budget, its revenue streams and potentials. This helps in evaluating new programs and services that need funding.”
As president, Johnson would like to see STMA become more visible with the end user groups he mentioned earlier in this article: school boards, athletic directors, facility management groups and parent-teacher organizations. As outlined in his vision for STMA at www.stma.org, he also hopes the association will “make further strides in helping its members enhance their professional image. Our success depends upon being avid learners, building relationships within our organizations, and being able to communicate and influence these decision-makers. STMA can help us by providing the continuing education and resources to gain respect and succeed in our careers.”
Lynn Grooms, Grooms Communications, is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a Green Bay Packers fan.