The name on our door is a daily reminder of our heritage as a family-owned company and a longstanding tradition of ethical entrepreneurship.
Axel Johnson, the son of a saddler, was in his early twenties when he came to Stockholm from the provinces and opened a small trading firm, A. Johnson & Co. In the early 1890’s he bought his first ship, and, by the time he died in 1910, he had built a major enterprise with a trading house, shipping line and steel works. His oldest son took over at his death.
Axel Ax:son Johnson was 33 when he took over the family business. More than an entrepreneur, the founder’s son was a pioneer- the first ship owner in the world to abandon steamships for a fleet of motor-driven ocean vessels, one of the first in the world to use electric furnaces in steel making, the first to build an oil refinery in Scandinavia, and the first to introduce a revolutionary design for oil tankers that soon became the standard. At his death 48 years later, the Group owned 38 ships and over 100 companies in Sweden and abroad.
In 1914, a Johnson Line ship was the first in the world to circumnavigate South America, giving the Swedish Group a reason to establish a presence in the United States. In 1920, A. Johnson & Co., Inc., based in New York City, was incorporated in Delaware as a shipping agency. The share capital was $100,000. The company’s profit at the end of its first year of operation was $2,300.
The Johnson family has operated in the U.S. for almost a century, and is committed to continuing to build, transform and develop profitable U.S. businesses going forward.
The company moved its office to Hanover Square in lower Manhattan in 1927. Over the next few decades, it functioned mainly as a service agency and purchasing agent for the group. Besides maintaining and chartering Johnson Line ships, A. Johnson & Co., Inc. purchased oil for the Johnson refinery and handled steel imports from the Johnson mill. Following the disruption of World War II, the decision was made in Stockholm to expand the New York office’s activities beyond trading, and, in 1946, Axel Ax:son Johnson sent his son to New York to oversee the building of the U.S. company.
With the arrival of Axel Ax:son Johnson Jr. in New York, the U.S. company began to come into its own. It acquired three ships, its first real assets, and entered the chartering business. Most important, the third generation Johnson began identifying areas where the combination of Swedish technology and American engineering could form the base for future growth. Axel Ax:son Johnson Jr. became chairman of A. Johnson & Co., Inc. in 1951 and took over the leadership of the entire group when his father died seven years later.
A. Johnson & Co., Inc. formed the Bird-Johnson Company in 1958 to build KaMeWa propellers in the U.S. under license from KMW, a group company in Sweden. Bird-Johnson signed its first contract with the U.S. Navy in 1966 and went on to become the premier supplier of controllable and fixed-pitch propellers for all classes of Navy vessels. The company was sold in 1988 to Ulstine Maritime, Inc., one of the world’s largest suppliers of equipment for ship propulsion and maneuvering. Parkson Corporation was acquired from the Parker Pen Company in 1967 and, within a few years, had its first big success with the Lamella Gravity Settler, another product licensed from the Johnson Group. While technology from Sweden was the basis for many of Parkson’s early environmental products, the company soon expanded its search globally for new water treatment technologies to license or acquire.
On Christmas day in 1971, negotiations were concluded to buy C.H. Sprague & Son from Shell Oil. Sprague, itself a 100-year-old family company, was one of the leading independent distributors of oil in New England. It rapidly became one of Venezuela’s largest customers, after the seven majors, with much of the oil destined for the group’s refinery in Sweden. During the seventies, oil trading generated enormous profits for the company. In 1977, A. Johnson & Co., Inc. established the Industrial Metals Division to process titanium scrap, trade in various metals and distribute welding products. The division evolved into Axel Johnson Metals Inc., built a state-of-the-art electron beam furnace and, in 1983, produced the first commercial titanium cast slab ever made in the United States. Eight years later the company was the first in the world to produce ultraclean titanium electrodes in commercial volumes. Axel Johnson Metals was sold in 1996 to Titanium Metal Corporation, a former joint venture partner and primary player in the industry.
The eighties were a decade of tremendous growth and some experimentation as A. Johnson & Co., Inc. moved into the high-technology sector and diversified its energy activities. Two telecommunications equipment companies, Hekimian Laboratories Inc. and Larse Corporation (later re-named Larscom) were acquired, as were several alternative energy projects and more deepwater terminals. Hekimian grew organically from a leader in the market for analog and digital test equipment to one of North America’s major suppliers of network assurance systems to telecom providers. At the close of the eighties, the company expanded its environmental business with the addition of ADS Environmental Services, a leading municipal wastewater flow monitoring company.
After serving as chairman from 1951-1984 and then honorary chairman, Axel Ax:son Johnson Jr. died in 1988, leaving a fourth generation of the family in command – his daughter, Antonia Ax:son Johnson. After Axel Ax:son Johnson Jr.’s death, the U.S. company was renamed Axel Johnson Inc. By the time the company celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1995, the flow of products and technologies was going both ways within the group, and innovation was more than ever the driving force. During the nineties, Parkson, ADS, Bird-Johnson, Axel Johnson Metals, Hekimian and Larscom all found international markets for their products and services. Sprague continued to expand its distribution network and energy portfolio, opening the market for more environmentally friendly products.
In 2000, Spirent Plc of London, global telecom network technology company, acquired control of Hekimian in a transaction valued at $1.6 billion. Larscom, after having been taken public in the late 1990s, was eventually acquired in a transaction consolidating the industry leading technology of the day. ADS was sold in 2005 to Nova Analytics Corporation, a worldwide supplier and integrator of analytical instrument products. Accordingly, in 2006 AJI began a new phase of growth, first by expanding its commitment to the water sector with the acquisition of water treatment technology provider, Kinetico, Incorporated. This move was followed in 2007 and 2008 by investments in the building products and medical technologies sectors, with the company’s investments in Mountain Lumber Company and Cadence Inc. Also in 2008, Axel Johnson Inc. reestablished its headquarters in a century-old building in New York City.
Axel Johnson Inc. continues to evolve and grow. In 2015, AJI made a further investment in the medical technology space, with its acquisition of HighRes Biosolutions. The company also expanded into the food product and packaging industry with its investment in Skjodt-Barrett Foods in 2017. A fifth generation of the family is now engaged in the business. Alexandra Mörner, Mrs. Johnson’s eldest child, has been serving on the AJI board since 2010 and assumed the role of Chairman of the Board in 2016. Axel Mörner also joined his mother and sister on the board in 2016.
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