EDGE Trailblazer: Jim Johnson has big plans for his adoptive home town

EDGE Trailblazer: Jim Johnson has big plans for his adoptive home town

August 1st, 2018 by Joan McClane in EDGE

Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com, poses for a photo on the Walnut Street Bridge Monday, July 2, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. BikeTours.com is a company that helps individuals choose, plan and book bicycle tours in Europe.

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Trailblazer: Jim Johnson has big plans for his adoptive home town

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Jim Johnson likes to tell people he was born in the wrong place.

He grew up 1,000 miles away from Chattanooga, in and around Providence, Rhode Island, where his father was a doctor. At 15, he went away to boarding school at the highly-selective Andover, outside of Boston, and later attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he earned a bachelor's and master's in Germanic studies.

Still, the northeast corner of the country isn't home, he says.

Jim Johnson at a glance

* Job: Owner of BikeTours.com in Chattanooga

* Education: A native of Rhode Island, he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in germanic studies from Wesleyan University in Connecticut

* Career: Johnson worked as director of public relations for Paul Revere Corporation, which was bought by the former Provident Life & Accident Insurance Co. in 1996. He moved to Chattanooga and worked at Provident (later merged with Unum) until 2003 when he formed a bicycle touring company, BikeToursDirect

* Civic involvement: A former president of the Chattanooga Bike Club, Johnson led the effort to buy and develop the trails for Stringer’s Ridge in North Chattanooga and he recently formed a citizens group known as Chattanoogans for Responsible Growth

"I was just astray the first 40 years, but it wasn't my fault," he says, remembering the winding road that led him south nearly 20 years ago, when he eventually launched a growing, international business and became one of Chattanooga's fiercest outdoor advocates.

After college, Johnson tried several different career paths — at one point he created a special events consulting company, at another he paid the bills with freelance business and travel writing — until, as he puts it, "corporate America came calling."

He took a job in Worchester, Massachusetts, for Paul Revere Insurance Group, where he was in charge of public relations.

"I was there for a number of years, and then all of a sudden this company called Provident went and bought us," he says, referring to the Chattanooga-based insurance provider which would later merge with Unum.

For six months, as the merger was finalized, he went between both cities. Then his boss asked the big question. Where do you want to live?

"Chattanooga," Johnson said. "He hardly had the words out of his mouth."

"It was love at first sight. The people were warm, friendly and welcoming. It took me a while to realize they were sincere."

Johnson brought with him a passion for both travel and biking. As a freelance travel writer, he had learned that travel by bike led to better stories. Biking allowed him to meet people and experience everything with his senses, he said.

He made friends at the Chattanooga Bike Club and bought a house in North Chattanooga almost immediately. Within three days of moving into his new neighborhood, nearly everyone on the street had come by to say hello, he said.

"People invited me for dinner. One family invited me for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and 20 years later they still invite me," he says. "I do have family up north but one of my favorite sayings is that friends are family you choose. My family is in Chattanooga. This is where my friends are."

Starting new career at 49

And those friendships bouyed him when he lost his corporate job at then Provident and found himself starting over again at 49 in his newly adopted home town.

Johnson had continued to do freelance travel writing while working in corporate communications, and on occasion brought friends from Chattanooga along with him on research trips.

"I loved planning my family's vacations, long before the Internet," he says. "A typical Sunday afternoon in the Johnson household living room was Jim surrounded, not by toys, but maps and brochures that my parents helped me send away for or pick up at a travel agency."

At first, a dozen friends went with him, but by the time he was let go from his job, he was taking groups of 30 people with him on carefully planned bicycle tours of European countries.

"It was one of the people on the tours who said, 'Why don't you do this for a living? You love doing it,'" he recalls.

So he thought about it.

If he used small, local bike tour companies, like he had for his personal trips, they could take care of the logistics — booking hotels, getting rental bikes and moving luggage — he reasoned. He called a few of his favorites and asked if they had American clients. When they said no, he asked if they wanted any.

"How would you like me to be your North American sales representative?" he asked them.

It was a business model that didn't exist at the time, he said, and a way to offer overseas bike tours 70 percent cheaper than American bike tour companies which shipped staff and equipment overseas.

BikeTours.com expands to 40 countries

The idea attracted small tour operators across Europe. North American companies had massive marketing budgets they couldn't compete with. "They were delighted when this little company in Chattanooga started sending them client after client," says Johnson.

In the company's first year in 2003, the three small, overseas bike tour operations they did business with only had a handful of American clients. Now, Johnson says, his business, BikeTours.com, is sending a quarter million dollars a year to some of those same mom- and-pop operations and representing 70 European bike tour companies in nearly 40 countries.

"We have helped them establish themselves by opening up a new market," he says. "Our clients benefit because they are getting a lower cost tour and greater variety."

Business is good on his end, too, he said. BikeTours.com, which employs seven people, booked 136 clients its first year online, but now books between 3,600 to 3,800 clients a year from all over the world. Sixty-five percent come from the United States. Another 10 percent to 15 percent are from Canada, he said. Sixty percent of tours are $1,000 per person or less.

"We are one of the largest bike tour companies in the world, but we don't operate bike tours," he says.

Cortney Geary, a planner with the Regional Planning Agency and a North Chattanooga resident, has been on four tours, including her honeymoon, with BikeTours.com and has enjoyed every one.

"We just loved the pace of travel, the opportunity to get off the beaten path and see some new places that you might not see if you just visit a big city abroad," she said of her honeymoon riding across France.

Johnson's business success is due, in large part, to BikeTours.com's intuitive website, said Mike Harrell, a local business advisor with Latitude Advisors who worked with BikeTours.com for several years.

"He has poured a lot of money into that website, but it drives his entire business," Harrell says. "I work with a lot of small businesses, and I haven't seen anyone with this level of sophistication."

He's also successful because he prioritizes people. As he's developed relationships with European bike companies, he's also developed relationships with government officials working to bolster tourism in small European countries. Officials in the Balkins, for example, asked for his help developing a bike tourism plan.

An advocate for local cycling

Johnson works just as hard advocating for local and regional cycling, says Shannon Burke, owner of Chattanooga-based Velo View Bike Tours, who met Johnson when he moved from Texas to Tennessee in 2016.

"The riding here is as good as anywhere else in the country," says Burke. "We are definitely interested in bike tourism for business reasons, but also because it is a part of the region's economy."

In 2011, while president of the Chattanooga Bike Club, Johnson worked with the Trust for Public Land and many organizations and individuals to raise $2.5 million to buy the Stringers Ridge property, which is now a large public park offering 7.5 miles of trails for trail running, hiking and mountain biking.

He also kept the project from derailing. The city of Chattanooga wouldn't take the 100-plus acres until it was a completed park. All the trails had to be finished and signs had to be up. Still, the Trust for Public Land didn't have enough money raised to purchase the property and complete the park. An additional $60,000 was needed for trail construction and signage.

So Johnson footed the bill. He had a good amount of cash on hand, he said, because BikeTours.com had had a good year, and he took a loan out for the rest. He told the Lyndhurst Foundation about his donation and it agreed to fund trail design, a feasibility study and public feedback efforts.

"It really made a huge difference in enabling us to raise additional support to complete the preservation and trail building of Stringers Ridge," says Jenny Park, Tennessee state director for the Trust for Public Land.

He gave, Johnson said, because others had.

"I have a lot of role models," he says. "The people behind the (Tennessee) Aquarium. The people behind the riverwalk. The people who pay for Nightfall. People like Fletcher Bright, who subsidized a bluegrass festival for free. I was just totally impressed by what Chattanoogans do for each other."

Johnson continues to actively promote the region's cycling economy and outdoor preservation efforts. Several years ago, he received a grant from Causeway, which was matched by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, to study and recommend potential rail-trails in the area. The study looked at 140 miles of rail corridors and identified 10 places for potential rail-trails.

The first rail-trail is still in the works, he said. A feasibility study on the North Shore to North Chickamauga greenway, which incorporates trails along active rail lines, was released at the end of June.

"Greenways are not cheap, but they are impactful. If you look at the Riverwalk, that took 20 years and a lot of money, but look at it. This would be about the same distance but on the north side of town. Maybe it will take 20 years and more than $100 million, but if we don't start today, it will take longer and cost more."

Promoting responsible growth in Chattanooga

Recently, Johnson has also become a bit of a spokesman for residents in and around downtown who are frustrated by development and planning decisions changing the nature of existing neighborhoods.

A group he started this summer, Chattanoogans for Responsible Development, is helping to connect concerned citizens and giving residents a louder voice in planning decisions.

The group began as a handful of neighbors who were working to stop a North Shore development they feared would damage the character of their neighborhood.

"They wanted to tear down acres of woodland next to a bird sanctuary. They wanted to cram in townhouses in a narrow place where woods used to be," says Johnson. "It would have destroyed the ecology and created erosion and stormwater issues."

He and his friends started going to planning meetings and voicing opposition, and the project was stopped, he said.

"After a couple meetings, more people came and then more people came," says Johnson. "This was happening all over the North Shore. I was going to start a North Shore group. Then I realized, this is a citywide issue."

In May, Johnson created a Facebook group for Chattanoogans for Responsible Development, which now has more than 400 members.

Johnson doesn't do anything half heartedly, says Burke, but that isn't what really makes him interesting. A lot of successful civic and business leaders bring passion to their work.

Many exert energy because they want to come out on top, but so often Johnson doesn't seem to be working for his ego, says Burke.

For example, when the two men last cycled in the Sequatchie Valley, Johnson took a wrong turn and got far behind the other riders. Still, he found his way back and finished.

"He is a slow and steady rider. He can do the mileage, but he is going to go at his pace. He is more about the journey and less about the destination," says Burke.

Johnson takes the same outlook on his work to improve Chattanooga's quality of life, he adds.

"He wants these goals realized," says Burke. "It is wonderful seeing someone on a day-to-day basis hammering away at it. He has built so many relationships along the way, and that is where the real value is, the partners you bring along on the trip."