Perry Johnson built an empire on ‘quality.’ But he never ‘saved’ auto industry

“The ad is an ad,” the Bloomfield Hills businessman told Bridge Michigan last week after a campaign event, defending his work to promote statistical analysis and international standards during a crucial period for automakers.

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The self-described “quality guru,” who launched his gubernatorial campaign with an expensive Super Bowl commercial, is no stranger to self promotion. 

While he is championing the technical aspects of the business certification, training and consulting empire he built in metro Detroit, industry insiders say Johnson is known first-and-foremost as a relentless salesman. 

Johnson sent millions of “junk faxes” to would-be customers in the 1990s in violation of federal rules, according to lawsuits reviewed by Bridge. Before that, he was known for mailing out VHS videotapes. He used cheap prison labor for telemarketing, wrote books and technical manuals and delivered seminars as a motivational speaker. 

To critics, Johnson’s aggressive marketing extended to an early business model that upended the rigid quality control field: He created one company that taught businesses how to pass certification audits, and another that actually conducted those audits, an arrangement which led to at least one industry suspension for violating conflict-of-interest rules. 

“Perry Johnson was the pioneer in what we call the certification mill industry,” said Christopher Paris, a consulting competitor and watchdog who runs the ISO Whistleblower Program. 

He said Johnson’s strategies “have been on the wrong side of ethics.”

“He’s just that guy. He’s wired differently,” Paris said.

Johnson’s companies, which bear his name, have denied any institutional wrongdoing, and experts say their reputation has improved since Johnson spun off and sold his consulting firm nearly two decades ago. 

“Perry has walked a fine legal line over the years,” said Roderick Munro, a certification auditor and fellow with the American Society for Quality.

But “he got through his initial issues, and he’s done very well for himself.”

Johnson is perhaps best known as the owner of Perry Johnson Registrars, Inc., a Troy-based firm he founded in the early 1990s that is accredited by industry groups to audit and issue standards certifications to auto, aerospace, food safety, cybersecurity and marijuana companies, among others.

The company has offices in Michigan, Texas, Los Angeles, Japan, Mexico, Italy, Thailand, India, Canada, China and the United Kingdom. 

“We are fortunate enough to be the biggest quality registrar in the United States and employ hundreds of people in Michigan and across the country,” company President Terry Boboige said in a statement through Johnson’s campaign.

Johnson started a separate firm, Perry Johnson Inc., out of his home a decade earlier, in the 1980s. It’s through that company, he said, that he persuaded auto suppliers to begin adopting “statistical process control,” a mathematical method for determining variance in order to manufacture precision parts.

“When your car door closes just right, thank Perry Johnson,” a narrator says in his Super Bowl ad. “When you even have a job in the American auto industry, thank Perry Johnson.” 

Johnson didn’t invent statistical process control. It dates to the 1920s and was popularized by W. Edwards Deming, who is considered the godfather of the quality control industry. 

But Johnson told Bridge he “promulgated it” at a time when U.S. automakers were besieged by reliability concerns and losing market share to Japanese companies making more dependable vehicles.

“I’m the guy that went out there and promoted (statistical process control), and did it endlessly,” Johnson said. “I gave (auto companies) a tool to use their experience in order to make the quality constantly get better until it was the best in the world. 

“But really,” he acknowledged, “it was the people on the line that saved the industry.”

The transformation

Johnson is one of 12 Republicans who have filed paperwork to compete in the August primary, which will decide who takes on Democratic incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the general election. 

He was one of the last to join the race, but he made a splash by pumping $2.5 million of his own money into the race. That has allowed him to pay for a statewide ad blitz and begin holding “interactive” campaign events around the state focused on education and election security.

Johnson is framing himself as a pragmatic problem solver, like Michigan’s last Republican governor, Rick Snyder. 

But Johnson also veered to the political right in the primary, backing a partisan petition drive to tighten voter ID laws, declaring himself a follower of former President Donald Trump and endorsing an attorney general candidate, Matthew DePerno, who tried to overturn the 2020 election. 

Statistical process control “became a way of life” for the auto industry and it could improve state government too, Johnson said in a recent campaign speech, suggesting Michigan could have detected pandemic-era unemployment fraud earlier, improved roads and done more to turn around struggling schools. 

The lanky 74-year-old built his empire decades ago amid a sea change as companies around the world began adopting statistical controls and what are known as ISO 9000 standards, an international quality system that tasks managers with putting procedures in place to improve performance.

In 1994, Detroit automakers agreed to replace their independent standards with a collective version of ISO 9000. At the time, Wards Auto called it “the most sweeping standardization system to hit the automotive industry since Henry Ford introduced mass production.”

Johnson’s firm was among the first registrars accredited to audit and issue QS-9000 certifications, which the Big Three required all its suppliers to obtain. Soon, many Tier 1 suppliers began requiring their own suppliers to obtain standards certification as well. 

Those standards, along with the advent of precision robotics in domestic manufacturing, played an important role in fighting back the “Japanese invasion” of inexpensive and reliable cars, said Carla Bailo, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research. “We learned an entirely different way to work.”

Domestic auto quality has improved over subsequent decades, but experts say consultants and registrars like Johnson are only one part of a larger story that included a culture shift embraced throughout the industry.

“There are many heroes in the transformation of the domestic auto industry,” but “there is no one party that can say, ‘We were responsible,’” said Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, a Brandeis University management professor and author of “Inside the Ford-UAW Transformation.”

“Anybody who’s been involved in the certification process is part of the transformation story but cannot claim to be the sole reason for the transformation to have occurred,” he said. “I would give equal weight to the frontline team,  to the middle managers, to the union leaders, to the senior executives, both in production and in support functions, HR, finance, quality and others.”

‘Wink and nod’

Experts say Johnson’s ads inflate his own role in that transformation, and industry insiders told Bridge Michigan that his quality control company was not always known for the highest quality work when it first began. 

While the reputation has improved, early conflict of interest concerns “gave him a real bad taste by a lot of companies initially,” said Roderick Munro, a certification auditor and fellow with the American Society for Quality.

Court records show the U.S. Registrar Accreditation Board suspended Perry Johnson Registrars in the early 2000s, preventing the firm issuing aerospace certifications because of allegations it was auditing suppliers that Johnson’s consulting firm had taught them how to pass. 

Board rules prohibited Johnson’s consulting and registrar firms from working for the same company within two years. 

“That’s a big taboo,” said Paris of the ISO Whistleblower Program.  “You can’t audit your own work, and you can’t certify your own work.”

The suspension was prompted by a complaint from Boeing, the aerospace giant, which alleged it had caught Johnson’s companies violating conflict of interest rules twice in six months. In one case, a Perry Johnson Inc. consultant had attended a Perry Johnson Registrar audit, according to Boeing. 


https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/perry-johnson-built-empire-quality-he-never-saved-auto-industry