Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson will take a leadership role at trucking and logistics business U.S. Xpress in August, shifting gears from a career spent entirely in education to a publicly-traded company with ambitious growth goals.
"I'm really excited and intrigued to be pushed and challenged - not that I haven't been," Johnson said. "You know I've been challenged and pushed in my superintendency, but being challenged in a different way around an industry that really is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, and with an organization that has some of the boldest goals in the industry."
Johnson will be the U.S. Xpress chief of staff, reporting directly to CEO Eric Fuller and tackling strategic, multi-departmental initiatives in the newly created role, Fuller said.
Among the company's goals is doubling revenue in the next four years, doubling community engagement, expanding training and development and growing its digitally-managed Variant fleet. U.S. Xpress has 10,000 employees and had operating income of $43.5 million in 2020.
"At U.S. Xpress, we've been going through a big transition, and obviously that requires bandwidth and talented individuals to make that operational," Fuller said. "When I learned that Bryan might be interested in entering the private sector, that immediately intrigued me."
Johnson, 38, a Nashville native and first-time schools superintendent, was hired in July 2017, after the Hamilton County Board of Education approved his contract in a 5-4 vote. In making his exit now, Johnson becomes the first superintendent to leave on his own terms since the Chattanooga and Hamilton County school systems merged in 1997.
"The truth is that most superintendents have a four- to six-year span in regards to their ability to sustain the work, and generally speaking that's because it's honestly complex work," Johnson said. "You're a CEO of an organization, and in addition to that you have this public element that really makes it complex, and on top of that layer on the fact that you're dealing with people's children."
After several years of improved student performance, broad strides in technology access and development of talent across roles, the school system is in a good spot to make this transition, he said.
About Bryan Johnson
Bryan Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in business from Austin Peay State University, a master’s degree in special education and teaching from Belmont University and a doctorate in educational leadership and professional practice from Trevecca Nazarene University.2008-2017: Johnson served in roles from teacher and coach to chief academic officer for the Clarksville Montgomery County school system.2017: Johnson became superintendent of Hamilton County Schools after a 5-4 school board vote.2021: Johnson announced he would leave the role leading Hamilton County Schools in August.
"There's a strong strategic plan in place, the board is aligned, and the district is on an upward trajectory," he said. "If the organization was not in a place in which it could be handed off really thoughtfully I wouldn't be stepping away."
His departure from the high-profile job leading the school system will also make more space for his wife, Candy Johnson, to pursue her career ambitions, Johnson said. Candy Johnson is president of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and previously worked as policy director for education for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
"One of the challenges she faced the first couple years in particular is that as employers were making considerations, they said, 'Well, your husband's the superintendent, and very rarely do they get to step away in a positive light,'" Johnson said. "I think this provides a unique opportunity for her to make an impact."
The move also forges a deeper connection to the community for both Bryan and Candy Johnson, which is a win for Chattanooga, Fuller said. His conversations with Candy were what ultimately led him to talk with Bryan about the possibility of a role at U.S. Xpress, Fuller said.
"It's really important that when we have very talented individuals like both of the Johnsons that we do everything we can to keep them in the community," he said.
Connecting business and industry to the school system has been a key focus of Johnson's tenure with the school system, and that will also be an element of his role at U.S. Xpress, he said.
"As the sector transforms and becomes more technology-based, really making sure the employees in the organization are as prepared as possible, and then also making sure that the future workforce that's coming is prepared," Johnson said. "I'm really excited to see it from both ends, and hopefully support it from both ends."
While Johnson's educational career might not seem a logical fit for this role, his experience leading 6,000 employees and managing a $500 million budget as head of a system with more than 44,000 students gives him a great deal of relevant operational and leadership experience, Fuller said.
"It really makes a lot of sense and gives us a new way of looking at things, a new approach, and I think Dr. Johnson will bring some fresh ideas we probably haven't thought of before," Fuller said.
Johnson's entire career had been in education. He served nine years in successively more responsible roles with the Clarksville-Montgomery County, Tennessee, school system, and was the system's chief academic officer before he came to Chattanooga. But his undergraduate degree was in business, Johnson said.
About U.S. Xpress
U.S. Xpress was founded in Chattanooga in 1986 by Max Fuller and Patrick Quinn with a fleet of 48 trucks. The company now has more than 10,000 employees, 7,000 trucks and 15,500 trailers. Eric Fuller has served as chief executive officer since 2017 and as president since 2018. In 2018, he led the company through its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange.
"I got a bachelor's degree in business administration and always thought I'd go down a business track, whether that was with a corporation or being a business owner," he said. "But I was really compelled by education, and education will always be a passion."
Johnson, who makes more than $250,000 a year and is among the state's highest-paid superintendents, said money didn't motivate the decision to change professional course.
"I was compensated very well. Compensation wasn't a motivator for me to step out of public education," he said. "It really is strictly about understanding when it's the right time to pass the leadership torch and make sure we hand it off the right way."
Johnson becomes the first Black member of the U.S. Xpress leadership team, which is a fortunate development for the company's publicly stated focus on diversity, but wasn't a deciding factor, Fuller said.
"He's an incredibly talented individual with a ton of experience, with a lot of knowledge, so we're just excited to have him as part of the team," Fuller said. "The fact that he brings some diversity of thought and experience is just a bonus for us."
Johnson said he has talked with members of the school board about who should lead the school system during the search for a new superintendent, but he's not ultimately the person who makes that call.
"I don't pick the leader that follows me, and I don't want that responsibility - that's the responsibility of the school board," he said. "They will do a great job, but they definitely are clear on my thoughts."
Contact Mary Fortune at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendents
Jesse Register: 1996-2006Register led the newly merged Chattanooga and Hamilton County schools systems. Register was pushed from the role a year before his contract expired, and went on to lead the Metro Nashville school system from 2009-2015.Jim Scales: 2006-2011Scales was ousted in a 6-3 school board vote after resisting pressure from county commissioners who sought to place their friends in certain jobs. He retired to his home state of Texas.Rick Smith: 2011-2016Smith retired under pressure for his handling of the fallout after the rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman by three of his basketball teammates and the surfacing of a state report detailing the lack of progress in the district’s lowest-performing schools. He spent more than 30 years in the school system.Kirk Kelly: 2016-2017Kelly, a 35-year veteran of the school system, served as interim superintendent during the search for a replacement for Smith. Kelly was one of five superintendent finalists to interview for the position.Bryan Johnson: 2017-2021Johnson, a first-time superintendent, was hired in July 2017, after the board of education approved his contract in a 5-4 vote. After four years in the role, during which he was named the 2021 Tennessee Superintendent of the Year, Johnson took a leadership position with U.S. Xpress.