Interview with Monte Johnston
Scott Stone Interviews Monte Johnston For
Strathmore’s Who’s Who, February 2016
Scott Stone: Tell me about how you initially got into the auto-finance industry, Monte.
Monte: We purchased some property ... And we looked into the opportunity of buying into the notes that the person had there, and just kind of started from there. The guy had just a few notes and some cars he would sell to some people and just kind of learn the business from right there. That's where the opportunity presented itself, I'd say.
Scott Stone: Okay. Did you have any experience in that industry prior to that, or was it a “first” for you?
Monte: Kind of a “first”.
Scott Stone: Okay. And what service does AAF provide and how does it differ from others providing similar services?
Monte: It sells and finances vehicles and then we assist customers in maintaining the vehicle. We are more transparent. That's our goal anyways; to be as transparent as possible with the drivability and the affordability that somebody wants and needs.
Scott Stone: Did you say “be transparent as possible”?
Monte: Yeah. Be transparent in the process of what's going on. Some of these customers have a car and they're making payments on it, usually biweekly or weekly, or however they're paid. So that's the way that works. And if the car doesn't run then they're not able to go to work and then they're not able to make their payments. So we try to understand their work. And given the parameters of what the expectation is for the vehicle, obviously you don't want somebody taking a minivan out into a pasture and doing donuts and stuff.
Scott Stone: [laughs] Right. So you are involved in numerous ventures including Signature Builders Incorporated. Could you please tell us a little about Signature Builders?
Monte: With Signature Builders, I think, it's been over a decade or more. It was a friend of mine that I had known since I was child. We played on the same little league team together. And just had an opportunity to buy and develop a property of land to build residential housing in northwest Arkansas.
Scott Stone: Excellent. And it's still going strong to this day?
Monte: Still there.
Scott Stone: As a prominent member of not only the Springdale community, but Arkansas as a whole, you were featured on the “40 under 40” list at 36 years old, which is a remarkable achievement. Do you feel that attaining so much success so early in life at a relatively young age set you up for some of the business challenges that you might face later in life?
Monte: Yeah. I think, though, the thing you got to always be careful about is that technology moves so fast now. Some of the things that you thought were a way to do business then, they change so fast. That's going to be a challenge. So, at least, I would say one thing it helps you do when you start younger; you have more opportunity to trial and error kind of that. I would understand when you're old and you make a mistake, sometimes you don't get a second chance. When you're younger, sometimes you're more curious about the technology or the gadgets or the things that will make the company more efficient. When you start at an older age, sometimes you're less likely to go out and pursue the technology that's available. Some people still just do it with fax machines and paper files.
Scott Stone: So do you keep up on all of today's technology the same as you used to?
Monte: Yeah. We still work on them. I mean, that's kind of still the same. It helps you be efficient, obviously. It helps you be more transparent. It helps people to stay connected better and communicate easier. So yeah, I would say that definitely we're always continuing to try to find a more efficient or effective way to communicate with our customers as well as our employees.
Scott Stone: And sometimes it is hard to keep up in, literally, any industry just because technology does move so fast in so many ways internationally, too.
Scott Stone: Where do you see yourself in five to ten years from now, business-wise?
Monte: Hopefully, just continuing on the path that we're on. I would like to think that we just continue to improve upon two things: advancement in the technology and continuing to research and look forward to what advantages those technologies bring to us… As well as just our workforce stabilizing and helping be a part of those people's success.
Scott Stone: Okay. Great. And I know that at any given time, you're involved in any number of businesses. I think at last estimate, you figured about maybe ten different businesses that you have.
Monte: Sure. Sure. On those, I'm more of an investor type role. And it's not so sophisticated that there's a board or anything. But it's mostly every couple weeks going over the numbers and making sure that things are staying on the path that was chosen. Because sometimes if you're not careful, you'll find yourself off into the ditch doing things that nobody even said we were going to do to begin with. So it's kind of helpful to be a part of it in that way. Not really an operational role like at AAF. But just kind of more of a top ... we can call it “a bird's eye” look at it.
Scott Stone: You were recently named an official Roundtable member by the Strathmore's Who’s Who and America's Registry of Outstanding Professionals. And you were appointed as one of only 50 individuals by the CEO/Chairman, J.M. Pizzo. Now, this means that you are in a pretty elite group now. About 50 people each year ... well, exactly 50 each year. And that's based on achievement and a number of other things. Now, in the official letter CEO J.M. Pizzo states: "Generally, we find there are three types of individuals in the business world: Number one, those who came from nothing and did something; number two, those who came from something and did nothing; number three, those who came from something and inherited something. However, Monte Johnston is unique and he is the rare exception to this theory. He came from something and did something else. He managed to be a self-made success on a parallel path to that of his family elders, or – to put it in another way – his heritage."
Why don't you tell us how that passage is relevant to your situation in professional life, assuming you feel it is ...
Monte: Obviously, I think if you were raised by- and come from- and were raised around competitors being competitive all the time, that’s really where that comes from. I mean, not really somebody who would want to be considered taking advantage of somebody else's success. And then once you start to become successful, you almost kind of challenge yourself to, I guess, outdo the other people.
Scott Stone: Right.
Monte: And I don't mean doing it in a showy way. Just in a competitive way. Just like if me and you went and play golf, I'm going to try to beat the crap out of you! But I'm going to buy you a beer when we're done. And I hope you're trying to beat me too because I don't like to be patronized.
Scott Stone: Of course. And I would try! I'm not much of a golfer personally, so you probably would have a leg up on me in that instance. But I've been out there a few times – and I get the point.
Monte: We will probably just get out there and feel like we both got embarrassed by our own play then. To answer the question, you know, seriously, I think what that is, is being a competitor. Being raised around and by people who were just ... competitive. It's who can rake leaves the fastest.
Scott Stone: Competition really is what moves everything forward. Without competition, everything would just remain stagnant.
Monte: That's true. That's true. It's a sense of also being not proud. Not a boastful proud but a pride of where you're from and of the people that raised you and you want them to be proud of you. Not proud of you like, not out bragging about it. Just that there's a smile on their faces when they see you because you've done something that they admire.
Scott Stone: Right. And that's important. Now, offer a piece of advice to the younger generation if you could. People may be coming up in your industry or really any industry, what would you say is important these days aside from some friendly competition?
Monte: I think one of the harder things for younger generation is there's so much technology now. And there's so much in your hand, all the news, all the information that you don't ... you chase too many rabbits with that. I mean you've got so many things that you're facing. So you're going to have to have the discipline to make some choices and then stick with them because there's going to be tons of choices. So many more choices than there was just 50 years ago for somebody that was 20 years old. Because you just see too many outlets. It's hard to do that. And then the second side of that would be to remain loyal. I mean low key is still the premium. It is what gets it done. It doesn't mean you always agree. It don't mean you're always in love or any of those things. Those things come and go, but without loyalty you're not going to see yourself where you think you should be.
Scott Stone: Right. And you alluded to the fact earlier that you do have a pretty loyal team at AAF.
Monte: I would say that, yes. And it goes both ways. And it goes to the point of personal as well as business.
Scott Stone: Have you developed real friendships with your employees?
Monte: Yeah. We understand those boundaries of work and personal growth. The loyalty kind of crossed on both of those.
Scott Stone: Right. And speaking of just recreation and things like that, what sort of things do you enjoy doing on your free time?
Monte: Playing music, listening to music and working out.
Scott Stone: Great. Now, bonus question: the Crazy Monkey, I know a lot of people probably wonder who came up with the Crazy Monkey -- was that you or somebody else you work with?
Monte: Actually, Crazy Monkey was ... it hatched in a manager meeting where we had a contest. I think a quarterly contest between our managers of all eight stores, and the guy who came in last had to dress up like a monkey and work at the store outside with the sign ... outside of the store of the manager who won the contest.
Scott Stone: Oh, really?
Monte: And then from there, I just kind of said, "Well, that's pretty funny!" So then it just kind of ... it kind of took on a life of its own from there. It was just who's going to be ... it's part of the deal… who's going to be the joke or whatever, and you lose. Or the eighth place guy had to be at the first place guy's store one weekend and dress in a gorilla suit!