Marvin L. Johnson
Class of 1964, BS
“I once promised I would never be in business for myself. I grew up in the retail business world, and I saw how tough it was to be a small business person,” says Marvin Johnson. “Well, I have had to eat those words.”
Today, Mr. Johnson is the president and owner of Associated Power of Wilmington, California, a provider of rental-duty portable generator sets, light towers, air compressors, and related equipment and accessories. The company has additional locations in Bakersfield, Fontana, and San Diego, all in California.
He credits much of his successful career with his constant desire to remain abreast of the latest innovations in technology. A 1964 electrical engineering graduate of Virginia Tech, Mr. Johnson has never shied away from learning about technology as it has evolved over the decades since his graduation, now closing in on 50 years. In fact, he enjoys learning “about the nifty stuff” that allowed him early on to develop on-line inventories, have computers speak to one another from remote locations, and other advances that seem commonplace today.
Mr. Johnson grew up in Bedford, Virginia, where his father owned a retail furniture business called Earl’s Furniture. As a young boy, he spent his afternoons after school at the downtown location, earning his spending money. “With 30,000 square feet of furniture, I had a lot of dusting to do. Dad even wanted the rails below chairs dusted. I also had to set up displays and move them around and dust them again,” Mr. Johnson laughs. It was then, as a teenager, that he made the promise to himself that he would not spend his professional career as owner of a small business. Teenagers have been known to back pedal.
His engineering interests may have started when he was about seven or eight, and his father installed one of the first television sets in town in the late 1940s. The closest station was in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the picture was a bit “snowy” but the technology bug hit him.
He moved on to amateur radio in the 1950s, mainly due to the influence of his cousin, Tom Musgrove, and good friend Don Graham, who both went on to become Hokies. During his senior year of high school, “Don encouraged me, and we took three trips to Norfolk for FCC Commercial License exams, leaving each time in the early morning to be there to take the tests, and returning in the evening,” Mr. Johnson recalls. They both got their commercial radio license, and had enough knowledge as teenagers to operate any transmitter in the world. The irony was that their high school instructor accompanied them, but did not initially pass the test.
Musgrove, Graham, and Johnson were all accepted into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, although Mr. Johnson admits he applied late to the Blacksburg school, and only on the advice of his high school principal. But he was admitted, and started by living off-campus for the first year as a member of the Corps of Cadets.
He chose electrical engineering because of his radio background, and volunteered to work at the university’s student radio station, WUVT. He even landed a disc jockey’s job, although he says his stint was “when no one was up” from 6 a.m. until 7:30 a.m. He played the popular music of the time, bands he recalls as being the Kingston Trio and the Lettermen.
Just before he graduated, he met his future wife, Sue, a freshman at Radford University. When he took his first job at Delco Products with General Motors in Dayton, Ohio, Sue transferred to and graduated from Miami University of Ohio. They were married in 1966.
His move to Dayton was once again precipitated by his relationship with Graham who had worked one summer at the GM facility. When GM had come to campus to interview, Mr. Johnson vividly recalls he had four exams on that day, and was unable to meet with the company representatives. His mentor Graham encouraged him to write a letter to GM, explaining his interests and why he had been unable to meet them. The next thing Mr. Johnson knew, GM was flying him to Dayton and making him a spectacular offer.
Mr. Johnson entered GM’s training program, and moved around a fair amount, learning about automotive components, electric motors, and power generators. He eventually landed in the power generator side, and was offered a permanent position in its sales. He traveled the southeastern part of the country, then the northeast, calling on engine houses. He stayed nine years with GM, during which he was transferred to the Los Angeles office.
In 1973, he “felt the need to go out on my own” and joined a small business called Lawless Detroit Diesel in the Los Angeles area. He started as a sales manager, but quickly moved up to vice president of sales and manufacturing. The owners appreciated his technical experience, and asked him to get the delivery of their products back on track, a feat he quickly accomplished. “One project was a 4500 horsepower gas turbine engine powered generator set, a big beast,” Mr. Johnson says. His management of the process soon showed the company’s owners that they could make money on engine sales, not just from the repair end of the business.
Six years later, Mr. Johnson joined Associated Diesel as a partner (later renamed Associated Power, Inc.), originally founded as a small diesel engine service company in Long Beach, California, In 1959 the company moved to Wilmington, California, and added industrial, off-highway, and oil field engine markets in addition to its initial focus on the commercial marine industry. By the time Mr. Johnson joined, Associated Diesel had already partnered with his old company, GM, and was made a factory authorized dealer for the Detroit Diesel and Allison Transmission Division of GM.
When Mr. Johnson agreed to accept the sales manager position for Associated Diesel, he told them he had four goals: to computerize the company, develop a new product line, achieve an expansion, and move into the rental business. To achieve his first goal, Mr. Johnson enrolled in computer courses with IBM, learning how to process communication between computers. ”For me, this was nifty stuff for that time. I took IBM’s report generating program class. Being able to hook up to a factory, and see all of the inventory on-line” and then multiply that by the five locations was progressive for 1982, Mr. Johnson explains. “I was scrambling to learn everything.”
And with the vast improvements being made in the manufacturing of engines, his decision to lose the emphasis on engine rebuilding and repair, and move to the rental business, was also prophetic.
As his successes mounted, Mr. Johnson, as one of three partners, bought out the fourth in 1984. Ten years later, Mr. Johnson and the second partner bought out the third. In 1995 he was named president, and he bought out the last partner in 1999.
Mr. Johnson’s early decisions in how to move the company proved fortuitous, and he is credited by the publication Construction Equipment Distribution with the “ability to adapt to changing business conditions enabling Associated Power to thrive for more than 40 years.” Mr. Johnson, a man who wears many hats, adds, “Technology is the key to survival in business.” His “survival” comes with multimillion dollar annual revenue.
The successful businessman now maintains a large fleet of rental equipment, with sales around the entire United States, Canada, Mexico, and overseas. Unlike most rental companies, they routinely sell their used equipment, which allows them to keep their rental equipment current. When there are natural disasters causing massive power outages, such as Hurricanes Katrina or Irene, his business lines in California light up.
Currently working with a Canadian data company, Mr. Johnson is directing Associated Power’s efforts in the custom design and use of Global Positioning System receivers installed on his portable power generators and air compressors. This allows him to monitor their position and alert him to pending problems. Data from his GPS receivers is sent to Canada, relayed back to California, and combined with his custom software to assist customers with the use of their rental power equipment.
In the 1990s, Mr. Johnson became reacquainted with his alma mater, serving on the electrical and computer engineering advisory board from 1995 until 1998, and then on the college’s advisory board from 2006 until 2010.
Together, the Johnsons have established two endowments in the college, and they are strong supporters of the Ware Lab where undergraduate design teams are able to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week on projects.
The Johnsons have one daughter, Christine, a graduate of William and Mary, and Stanford, who works in New York City and is married to journalist Bryan Curtis.
Class of: 1964
Year Inducted into Academy: 2012