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Ralph E. Johnson MBA '92
  Ralph E. Johnson MBA '92

From Grand Rapids to Grand Change

2/11/2004 --

Engineering Welfare Reform in Cuyahoga County

Ralph Johnson was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, "the best place in the world to grow up," he says proudly. Johnson developed an interest in engineering in high school, and after graduation enrolled in what was then General Motors Institute in Flint. "When I finished GMI with a BSIE, I started full-time as an engineer at General Motors," says Johnson, "but I soon realized engineering was not as interesting as management. It was a good path, however, so I remained an engineer for one year, then became a supervisor for the next four years. Before long, I realized I'd never done anything else and didn't even have a résumé. I ended up getting a BS in business administration at Aquinas College while working full-time."

Johnson¿s sister was at the University of Michigan then, and both he and his wife Lisa decided this was the right time for him to get his MBA and her to finish her bachelor's degree. His professional life really started during his second year of business school, when he was president of the student government and also parliamentarian of the Black Business Students Association.

"The guy sitting next to me at a luncheon said, "I'm Chuck Farr, senior partner at McKinsey and Company." He convinced me to interview at this prestigious international consulting firm, so I did and got the job." Johnson stayed at McKinsey from 1992 to 1997.

When new Ohio welfare legislation put a three-year time limit on welfare benefits for 28,000 people. Cuyahoga County asked if McKinsey could help them.

¿The partner who took the call asked me to help get a study going. We met the next day with county commissioners. At the first meeting, one commissioner said, "It makes complete sense, but we don't know anyone, we need a leader." We started doing the work, and after about eight weeks I asked them to mention I might be interested, and it was done."

Johnson started on January 5, 1998, and for the next six weeks was the entire organization. "When I left that position, there were 750 employees, 11 neighborhood facilities and 30,000 families moved from welfare to work. No matter how long I live or what professional success I have, I will always look back at Cuyahoga County as the pinnacle of my career. We had a huge challenge and met it. People said you couldn¿t do this in a public structure, but we did. I believe if it's done well, welfare reform has the potential to be the biggest structural change in the country," emphasizes Johnson. When Ralph Johnson was getting ready to leave his position, he walked up to a staff person and client at one neighborhood center and the staffer gave him a big hug and said, "Ms. Smith has been a client for eight years, but two years ago she got a job. She's had three different better jobs since and now is not getting welfare, has health care, doesn¿t get food stamps and earns enough that she doesn't need our help with daycare." Johnson adds, "The case worker turned to Ms. Smith and said Mr. Johnson has been the director of our agency, and this lady stood up and hugged me. It doesn't get any more rewarding than that."

Johnson came back to the University for the spring 2000 board meeting, which included a senior partner from McKinsey. "Jeff St. Clair wanted me to come back as director of professional development and administration in the North American operational effectiveness practice." He interviewed for and landed the job.

"There are about 75 consultants dedicated to this practice at McKinsey and about 30 support people," explains Johnson. "Basically, I'm sort of a COO for human resources, recruiting, finance, practice management functions, budgets and the like. Professional development is my thing. We're committed to operational development work. We are helping new consultants think about their careers and new assignments and how they can become a partner."

In 2003, Johnson received the Charles H. Ihling Memorial Service Award for extraordinary service to the Alumni Society Board of Governors at the Business School's annual Scholarship Dinner.

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: 734.936.1015 or 734.647.1847