Taunton, Somerset; the county known for its delicious cider and to have inspired a childhood favourite, ten-pin bowling. It’s the town where Johnny was born and grew up, with his father who worked as a fireman, his mother in the local glove factory. He recalls himself being a happy child and hardworking, which is no surprise to me from what I know of him already; both appear to be foundational traits of his character.
Aged 11, Johnny went to grammar school where he kept his head down focusing on his studies, as well as picking up a flair for music and learning to play the guitar. He passed his A-levels and went on to university in Canterbury where he decided to study economics and sociology, despite having little interest in either subject.
“Once I got to university, I seem to have become a bit wild and I wasn’t a great student,” he admits. Although, in the 70s it seemed to be ok not to attend course work and so he didn’t, “I’m not in any way proud of that; by the way, and often think how foolish I was.” Nevertheless, he left with a Bachelor’s degree and went on to do odd jobs for a few years, his last one being flipping burgers in a café in Whitstable before he went off to join Virgin in 1976.
“You’ve never worked in a record shop in your life, have you?”
At 23, Johnny mentioned to his friends that he was going to go to London to get a job in a record shop; he wanted to go there to find out how they work and to then come back to open one of his own. Off he went. On his first day in London, he secured a room in a squat in Stockwell and a job as a motorbike despatch rider. The following day, on his way to his first pick-up, he happened to drive past the Virgin record store at Marble Arch.
Remembering what he had said the week before, he went in and asked if they had any vacancies. “The chap there gave me the address of ‘head office’ and told me to go and see them. So I did. Pam, the general manager, asked me what experience I had. Well, with my friend in Whitstable having a second-hand record shop, I said I worked there occasionally,” he recalls.
Pam gave him a job and he started working as a trainee manager. “Bliss!” he exclaims. Within a month Jeremy, the manager of the Notting Hill shop where Johnny was working said to him, ‘You’ve never worked in a record shop in your life have you?’ He immediately confessed, and without hesitation, Jeremy was on the phone to Pam. “She called me over to ‘head office’ where I was promptly sacked!” he ruminates.
“I obviously said ‘fair cop’ to Pam but as it was Christmas time and they were hiring Christmas staff I asked, could I become a Christmas boy?” Much to Johnny’s surprise, she said ‘Sure, we like you and you love records and you work hard, perfect for temp Christmas staff’. That Christmas he worked every day, Sundays included and picked things up quickly.
When the festive season was over, the cassette buyer decided to leave and so, they gave Johnny his job. “I was back in!”, he laughs. And it didn’t stop there, then the album buyer left followed by the manager, and within a year, Johnny found himself the shop manager of Virgin Records Marble Arch. “I stayed there for a few years then moved to the Megastore,” after which he went on to become the area manager, then general manager, then before he could have bet on it, he was MD. “I never did open that shop in Whitstable and, even worse, I never did pick up that first parcel as the motorbike dispatch rider… I do feel bad about that.”
So early on into his career, Johnny showed true commitment and was a testament to breeding your own luck and creating your own opportunities as well as seizing them. There wasn’t a day in his calendar since he had left university where he decided to settle for what was, and he simply kept trying.
Perhaps these are just the right attributes that are needed to work alongside a figure such as Richard Branson, which he did for several years; helping to make his vision a reality by leading on the expansion of Virgin Retail into Europe and Australia and established the Virgin Megastores brand. “Richard was an inspirational character to work for, I know he has his critics nowadays but I’m not one of them” he meditates.
“He taught me to never to trust the experts and that there is usually a better way to do everything that has now become routine. He also ran the place with absolutely no pomp and ceremony, in fact, those that wanted some pomp would have to go elsewhere. He never had an office in all the twelve years I worked with him. Nowadays, I have an office but no desk or executive chair, just some sofas and an old guitar. I can imagine Richard still to not have an office.”
“I never did pick up that first parcel as the motorbike dispatch rider… I do feel bad about that.”
In 1988, Johnny left Virgin and decided to make a move into video publishing where he worked for a number of companies before going on to join VVL which specialised in non-film entertainment, particularly comedy presenting artists such as Billy Connolly, Lee Evans, Peter Kay, and Ricky Gervais. Soon after, VVL was acquired by Polygram and then they were in turn acquired by Universal. He became Joint MD of the home entertainment arm, Universal Pictures, and held that position until 2007 before becoming Head of Strategic Development.
I asked Johnny what some of his most valuable lessons have been over the years that he still carries with him today. “I’ve been running companies, big or small, for 40 years, and you do have to learn early on that just being nice isn’t going to be enough,” he shares. “There are times that you have to take decisions that you regret having to do but, if you don’t then you will be letting everyone that works in the company down. I found that very tough to start with… still do. There was a period in my 40s where I think I perfected the art of bluffing tough, but it’s never easy. Although, I am passionate about this, and ducking these issues results in letting everyone down.”
Another lesson he shares is that you have to realise that when you are running big companies is that everything seems to be going wrong all the time. “It’s not, of course. But there are thousands of things that could go wrong and those that do will come to you to be part of the solution. As soon as you fix one, another will appear. Day after day… for forty years! It takes a strong resolve to keep enjoying that challenge.”
Indeed, strong resolve is important, but there would also have to be an underlying passion for the industry to remain in it for so long despite all of its challenges. For Johnny, it was a case of two loves: film and music. Although he admits to being more of a music type of guy rather than film, “And, it’s not just the love of the content, I enjoy being part of the team that delivers it as much as what it is we deliver.”
“They need to be capable and engaged appropriately enough to be able to make a difference.”
Prior to this interview, I initially met Johnny at an event in Liverpool where he gave a talk on how to get films funded; he took the audience through the funding process and peppered in stories of his personal experiences throughout. Every now and then during his talk, he would share the work of young talent who he had worked with or taught in the past, with sheer delight by what they had created. With this, he regularly emphasised how important it was to engage with emerging talent and help to bring them up in an industry that is constantly looking for ‘sparkle’.
I asked him what he meant by that and why he felt it was important, “Everything is changing all the time… oddly the older you get the more you realise this,” he reflects. “When you’re young, you join an industry and you learn how things are and how they work. Ten or fifteen years later, you are facing challenges caused by change and you hanker back to the days when you first started, when things, to your mind, were more stable. Except they weren’t! You just didn’t know any better and so the moment you joined was the moment you chose to define as ‘stable’.”
He explains how these changes and challenges can be in any field; creative, technical, distribution, marketing, anything and everything. And it is the new and emerging talent that cause these fundamental changes, within the framework of what currently exists, that help to drive an industry forward.
“There are some new starters who will learn and then simply try to repeat and fit in. A small number will try to lead change but without really learning the ropes, mostly with catastrophic results. A third group, however, will learn the ropes and then use their more modern experience to shape the industry for the future, and its this group that companies need to have coming through. They need to be capable, and engaged appropriately enough to be able to make a difference.”
Having the attitude for the industry is one thing, being prepared for it is another. We begin talking about the main misconception that people have when entering the film industry; money.
“I always say that my number one priority is to pay back whoever has given me the money to make or buy whatever film or whatever it is that I have bought or made. Many people, new to the business, focus, understandably, on the creative. It makes sense. But unless it’s your own money, in which case you are free to do what you like, then it’s likely that the people funding you hope to get it back with a little bit more,” he explains. “If you achieve that then you’ll likely get given more and asked to repeat it, if you don’t then it’s even more likely that you’ll stop having the opportunity… Career over!”
So, with this awareness how might those just starting out plan ahead for the future of the industry and what should they look out for? He responds, “You will hear people say that ‘content is king’, and it is, most of the time, but there are windows in time where distribution is king for a while. We are in one of those windows right now and will still be within the next five years.”
The other, more overarching, issue he believes is the general feeling that ‘everything should be free, if not free, then very cheap’. “This free/cheap thing has led many in our industry to fight it rather than understand how their business has to change to accommodate it. Witness the music industry battle with streaming and digital distribution… the new starters in the industry would never have behaved that way if they had had sufficient influence.”
“The notion that work is not ‘life’ never occurs to me but, I know that that’s not going to be possible for everyone.”
Over the decades, Johnny has created a career for himself that subsequently does not feel like work. Cleaning the house and doing the dishes is work, his career is not. He shares how the lifestyle he has made for himself doesn’t particularly offer a ‘work/life balance’, but that concept itself throws him slightly.
He has loved what he has done ever since his first day, back in 1976, “The notion that work is somehow not ‘life’ never occurs to me but, I know that that’s not going to be possible for everyone. I’m very lucky because of that, but I still think it’s something worth considering when you are making choices when starting out.”
As we begin to draw our conversation to an end, I wanted to hear what advice, if any, he would want to give his teenage-self considering everything he knows today, “If I were being worldly-wise I’d say, it’s a long road; make sure you choose one where you will enjoy the walk,” he shares.
“If I were being more reflective on my own road I’d say, don’t worry, don’t try to figure out what has to happen next, let it happen. It will most likely be the right thing for the simple reason it has come about because of who you are and who you want to be. Even if you don’t know it.”