Graduate Commencement Speeches: Eric Johnson ’72, H’24, P’08 and Erin Tolefree H’24

Side-by-side photos of Erin Tolefree and Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson ’72, H’24, P’08 and Erin Tolefree H’24 delivered the Commencement address at Babson College’s graduate Commencement ceremony May 11. Here is the prepared text of their remarks:

Eric Johnson ’72, H’24, P’08

Good afternoon, distinguished guests, Babson faculty and staff, family and friends, and most importantly, the Babson graduate Class of 2024.

It is an honor, a privilege, and pleasure to address you here today. I have the distinct honor of sharing this podium with my daughter, and family business partner of 24 years, Erin Tolefree, who will share her view of sustaining leadership and business evolution. She will also be a tough timekeeper.

I grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, and Chicago was a ripe place for African American business development, and a booming city in every respect. My father was the founder of what was to become the first African American-owned business to ever go public, Johnson Products Company, makers of Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen, and the sponsors and producers of “Soul Train” into a nationally syndicated phenomenon.

WATCH: The graduate Commencement address by Eric Johnson ’72, H’24, P’08 and Erin Tolefree H’24

In high school, when assigned a college counselor, I introduced myself and asked her “What was the best undergraduate school of business in the country?” and she replied, “Babson Institute, but you don’t need to apply.” I said thank you, stood up, shook her hand, and promptly left her office, never to return.

Arriving at home that evening, I researched the school and convinced my parents it was the place for me. As I look back, there are three important hallmarks for me of my Babson experience.

  1. Forming the Black Student Union as a support system and recruiting body for African Diaspora students.
  2. Being the student representative to the Management Department in my junior year and working with Dr. John Hornaday on the creation of the Entrepreneurial Studies Program. There was a lot of discussion in academic circles as to whether this was a valid academic subject, and many experts questioned if entrepreneurship could be taught.
  3. And, finally, the Babson experience itself helped me to validate that I was ready for the competitive environment of business. That ability to confirm allows students to leave this institution with a confidence few places in the world can equal.

Once I began working in the family business, I quickly realized that none of my managers would ever critique my work, as the son of the president and owner. I made the difficult but necessary decision to leave the family business and sought a role in sales management at Proctor & Gamble, which, in 1972, was known as the best consumer products company in the world.

After three years into the program, I returned to Johnson Products armed with greater knowledge and a significantly stronger work ethic. My uncle, who was VP of sales, made clear to me that in order to be promoted I had to be significantly better than any other candidate and that I would lose any tie. That standard and expectation is still alive in Baldwin Richardson Foods Company today.

I became president in 1989, when our stock, which had been as high as $50, was valued at $2.50. On the day of the announcement, we also confirmed our fourth loss in five years due to heavy competition, and the company was in survival mode.

I was energized knowing this was my best opportunity to lay to rest any ideas that I got there because I was the son of the president and founder. After reinstating full salary from the 15% austerity pay cuts employees had accepted, I stated that the company that just lost $4.8 million and one that makes $4.8 million will be done in the same building, with the same brands, and the same equipment, but the difference will be in the motivation of the people.

In one year, we turned the loss into a $1.8 million profit. A year later, we made a $4.7 million profit and were the seventh-best preforming stock on the American Stock Exchange, earning the American Management Association “Turn Around” award.

The company was profitable and successful again, our stock was at $26 a share, but I was not happy, nor did I feel satisfied. There was a voice in my head that this lifelong goal was not my purpose. I decided that while I did not understand everything about this feeling, it was important for me to follow the path and I decided to leave the company in 1992 to create my own value.

“Roger Babson believed in giving back and good corporate citizenship. Let’s keep the dream alive and build a better society because we care.”
Eric Johnson ’72, H’24, P’08

In September 1992, I closed a transaction to buy Baldwin Ice Cream company, a small regional brand that had been around since 1921, with less than $3 million in sales. In 1997, after quadrupling the size of that business, we bought Richardson Foods from Quaker Oats. By 2005, Baldwin Richardson Foods had grown to over $100 million in revenue.

Our company has five corporate-shared values that support our business and customer value proposition. They are very basic: commitment to people, service to customers, honesty and integrity, meeting our goals, and performance for financial success—all under the banner of a commitment to excellence. In order to retain real values, there can never be a time, or event where they are compromised. You either have values or you don’t, no exceptions.

As our business grew, so did the challenges; reinvention became a regular exercise. But, I was always firmly supported by some simple basics and my Babson experience. Basic concepts are very easy to state but very difficult to master.

I have a set of values and concepts that I constantly depend on, and I want to share some with you today.

  • If you understand, you don’t have to remember.
  • Without action, nothing is going to happen that will produce a result. Deliberately not doing something is an action.
  • When you lead an organization, every day you wake up you carry the responsibility to provide for the welfare, goals, and dreams of all your employees and their families.
  • Finally, there are three categories of people in the world:

Those who need help, physical and mental or otherwise not capable of taking care of themselves.

Those who are self-sufficient; they work, raise a family, and manage to live independently successful lives.

And, there are those of us who have the capacity, and I believe, the responsibility, to help others.

Roger Babson believed in giving back and good corporate citizenship. Let’s keep the dream alive and build a better society because we care.

Today, at over $500 million in revenue, Erin represents the next generation of the business, and she will share shortly her vision and process.

You will see vividly how, and why, change is necessary when successful organizations grow beyond the founder stage. Please allow me to introduce our next speaker, Erin Tolefree, CEO of Baldwin Richardson Foods Company.

Erin Tolefree H’24

Thank you, Dad

Thank you to President Spinelli, Babson’s governance members, faculty, staff, friends, family, and, of course, the Class of 2024.

It is an incredible honor to be here today—not just because I am following the words of my father, my mentor, and today my business partner, but because I am following in the footsteps of two generations, with my grandfather, George Johnson, having delivered the Commencement address in 1976.

Forty-eight years later, I consider it a great privilege to share with you how the entrepreneurial endeavors of two great leaders paved the way for me to stand before you today.

As far back as I can remember, my life has been one long lesson of entrepreneurial leadership. At age 5, I remember riding into the offices of Johnson Products with my grandfather from the North Shore of Chicago. I can smell the inside of his car like it was yesterday.

I would follow him up to the second floor, get dropped off with my sister, Cara, and we would go to “work” for the day. Imagine a sea of 50 or 60 desks. Our job was to make sure everyone had all the office supplies they needed for the day. My sister and I took our obligation very seriously to make sure we got it right.

After lunch, we’d head down to get our hair done in the test salon trying and learning about all the new hair care products in the Johnson Products portfolio. Directly after, we’d head over to my father’s office, distinctly different from the second floor corner office of my grandfather, but neatly situated and surrounded by plastic curtains, right in the middle of the production floor … in the center of all the action.

From these experiences and others early in my life, I knew I loved being part of this entrepreneurial family. And, of course, It felt glamorous on days like this—because I didn’t have to deal with any of the day-to-day stresses of entrepreneurship. But, over time, I also saw the late nights, the worries, and the challenging times. Still, it never discouraged me.

As I grew older, my early exposure to the business paid off and I got to put some of my own curiosity and entrepreneurial ideas into action. I was able to do this because of my dad, from his entrepreneurial instinct and his Babson education. Those lessons went way beyond how to run a business.

He had learned, in life and in the classroom, that entrepreneurship is a pathway to impact, to providing opportunities where they otherwise might not exist, that entrepreneurship can drive real economic impact in your community.

And, today, that is a foundational philosophy in how we lead Baldwin Richardson Foods. We are guided by our mantra of “What we do well enables us to do good.”

Good for our customers who we work to delight with safe, high-quality and delicious winning products every day, most notably, Grimace and Shamrock Shakes, Nutri Grain Bar Filling, and Frappuccinos, and so many more fun and iconic products.

Good for our people, who through delivering exceptional results can make a positive impact on their lives and careers.

Good for the places we live, where we can create access to opportunities and pathways for others. This is evidenced in the brilliance and post-collegiate paths we see in our Babson and Spelman College (my alma mater) scholars already.

Babson drills into its students that you have to be committed to impact, and this value guides me as strongly as if I had attended college here myself.

“Today, Babson graduates another class of students into the world, which means the world becomes a better place than it was yesterday.”
Erin Tolefree H’24

I’ll share a story about how our North Star, our values, and our mantra have allowed our business to thrive: When the pandemic hit, the world shut down, our world slowed and inventories skyrocketed overnight. Many companies in our industry slowed down or shut down, sending people home.

For us, deciding what to do came down to a simple question: Did we mean it when we said our people were our most valuable asset? If so, being guided by our values, made our decisions and path forward simple. BRF would be the place of safety and stability for every employee of our organization.

We quickly rallied around the notion of our responsibility to “Feed America.” “Keeping drive-thrus stocked and grocery stores filled with our delicious products.” We recognized the importance of our front-line team in delivering this mission and instituted hero pay, keeping every single person that could work as part of our team.

We kept people in stable employment with steady paychecks in the face of record-high unemployment—and together, we achieved remarkable results, powered by a sense of unity and purpose that still inspires and drives our One Team approach today. Since that time, we’ve experienced tremendous growth, going from 260 to over 700 employees and are on an accelerated path to becoming a billion-dollar enterprise.

In the beginning, Baldwin Richardson Foods was an example and a vision created by my father of what is possible, a desire to build through excellent service to our customers and valuing our people to become a leader in our industry.

Today, we are a shining beacon of what is possible.

Yes … we are Black-owned, yes … we are women-led and … we are a multigenerational leader in our industry, and we take that responsibility extremely seriously and know that we are an inspiration and a template for others to follow.

There are young Black men and women out there looking to us. There are family businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs watching how we approach things. And, there’s a fourth generation watching and waiting in the wings.

I am extremely privileged to lead this business with my amazing sister and partner, Cara Hughes, who leads all things Customer and Community Impact at BRF, and among our siblings, we have children who may be interested in joining this business someday. I had the great privilege for several years to work alongside my brother, John Johnson, a Babson alumnus and trustee, who brought a push for adoption in technology into our operations before going on to pursue his own entrepreneurial ventures. And, just to round it out, our other sibling, Lecretia Capista, is not in the business directly but supports our People Engagement Strategy through organizing events and concepts to help strengthen our great place to work culture.

As we think about the next generation, we’re conscious that their education is already well underway simply from front-row seats they have been exposed to from an early age, not too different from our own upbringing. We also consider a Babson education to be a desired and encouraged part of rounding out their collective educational journey.

And, they’re already being guided by the things my dad—and, as a result, our entire family—learned here at Babson.

Today, Babson graduates another class of students into the world, which means the world becomes a better place than it was yesterday. A world that values impact more than it did yesterday. That values people more than it did yesterday.

I think you will find, as our family has found, that as long as you set those values as your North Star, you will never go wrong.

Congratulations, Class of 2024, and may following your values and your passion lead you to achieve limitless possibilities!

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