The Journey of Hall of Fame Honoree Rob Johnstone
When Rob Johnstone went to his first association meeting in Orlando in 1997, he had to sleep in the lobby. At the 2020 CLDA Final Mile Forum in Miami, he stood at the front of the room for his induction into the CLDA Hall of Fame.
Quite a trip for a guy who started his career as a salesman for IBM, launched three companies and served as the president of CLDA’s predecessor organization, the MCAA.
Rob’s first job out of college was a five-year stint in sales for IBM, but he knew that wasn’t for him. “I wasn’t cut out for corporate,” he said. “I wasn’t patient. So, I joined the super-fast business of same -day delivery, where patience wasn’t needed.”
He co-founded that first company, Priority Express Courier, in 1994 in Philadelphia with his former college roommate from Drexel, Gerry Frey. “We had both worked in corporate. But we knew what we really wanted to do was start a business,” he recalls. “So, we did. We decided to be couriers. We used our skills as salesmen to bring in the customers. Then, we hired a person to do the deliveries, bought a van and we were in business. Our first delivery was medical specimens and that vertical ended up being the backbone of the business for 20 years.”
Priority Express Courier grew steadily, focusing on same-day time critical deliveries mostly in healthcare. When the partners sold it 20 years later, healthcare was still 60% of their business. Rob stayed involved for two more years after the sale to a private equity firm. Along the way he and Gerry decided it was time to start another business and Priority Archives was born in 2000. They grew that record storage business, eventually selling it in 2013.
Then it was on to another new company for Rob and Gerry called Priority Rental, in which Rob is still involved. The company rents temperature-controlled equipment such as air conditioners for hospitals and nursing homes and heating for construction projects.
“Get a Good Attorney. Get a Good Accountant. Join the MCAA”
Rob’s journey into entrepreneurship started with a trip to Hartford, Connecticut. “When we were considering starting the courier business, someone told us we had to meet Mike Gualtieri who had been in the business and started two courier companies, Connecticut Courier and ProCourier,” recalls Rob. “Mike was so generous with his time. We asked a lot of dumb questions. He told us there was a lot of opportunity in Philly. He said it was a great place for us to start a courier business. We were pumped after we met with him. He was so positive. He said we had to do three things: get a good attorney, get a good accountant and join the MCAA. He told us it would be a great way to meet people and learn about the industry. He was adamant about us joining the association. We became members because he told us to. It was the best advice we’ve ever gotten. Right from our first MCAA meeting – when we didn’t have enough money for the hotel and had to sleep in the lobby – we got ideas that served us well.”
Rob recalls quizzing everyone at that meeting in 1997 and getting his first taste of ways to operate more effectively and efficiently. “We had three vans and three employees at that time. At the meeting, someone told us about independent contractors. What an idea! And there was so much more. We asked a ton of stupid questions and through the members we learned about the business. Many of these people have become lifelong friends. Getting to know the people in this industry is the best part of what this association offers. Yes, we got a lot of business from the association, but the most important thing we got was meeting fantastic people along the way.”
For Rob, those people have been the keys to his success. “These were people who knew our business inside and out. They did more than sharing best practices. They’d share their recommendations on vendors for things like insurance and computers and they’d open the doors that gave us access to industry experts.”
He pointed out that this kind of sharing doesn’t happen in some of the other sectors where he’s done business. “I’ve been a part of many industries and I have to say that in most of them people don’t share like this. Being able to network with industry leading peers in noncompetitive ways – that’s the value you see in this association. You don’t find it in other industry sectors like this.”
From Member to President
Rob’s journey through the association, started as a member. “I’d go to the convention every year. I’d take part in sessions, make connections, play some golf and see friends and colleagues in the industry,” he said.
Then, in 2002, Mark Chiusano, a board member at the time, recruited Rob for the board. “I knew Mark and, of course I knew Mike Gualtieri so when they asked me to join the board how could I refuse?” he recalls. He became active in the association, serving on the membership and conference committees and starting his journey towards the presidency. He moved through the ranks of the Executive Committee starting in 2006 and ending in 2012 when he became president. He served as the president until 2014, rounding out what turned out to be a Three-Rob Board that included Rob Slack and Rob Hackbarth. He was known as Tall Rob.
A Meeting He Didn’t Expect to Attend
Tall Rob didn’t expect to come to this year’s Final Mile Forum, but his old friend and mentor, Mark Chiusano, conned him into it. “I didn’t plan on going, but Mark talked me into it, saying he needed a ride to the conference,” he said. “I figured I’d come down and visit for breakfast. When Mark stepped to the stage to present the Hall of Fame winner, I was totally surprised when he said it was me. Then I got another surprise when I looked to the back of the room. My daughter Jennifer had left school at the University of Florida to be there and my girlfriend Melissa, came down from Newport. I was completely shocked.”
In introducing his old friend, Mark pointed to Rob’s long history in the organization and his contributions to the industry. “Rob is a great businessman, a great partner to Gerry, a great father and a dear friend of mine,” he said. “Members of the CLDA Hall of Fame, like Rob Slack, Rob Hackbarth and Ronnie Burns, all share certain traits. Like Rob, they are great leaders, visionaries and entrepreneurs.”
Rob’s spontaneous remarks when he accepted the award were about what the association has meant to him over the years, professionally and personally: “This industry has given me a lot more than I could imagine. I wouldn’t be here without the great people around me, including my business partner Gerry. Unlike a lot of people in this industry, I did not grow up in the business, so I had to learn it from the ground up. Once I got involved with this organization, all that changed because of the generosity of those I met. I am thankful to all the people in this room and all of those who helped me along the way. I thank you for this great honor.”
Grateful and Amazed
In looking back on that day and his induction into the CLDA Hall of Fame, Rob is grateful and somewhat amazed. He sums up his journey through the association this way: “I got back a lot more out of this association than I ever gave. It was humbling to get that honor and to join the ranks of some of our industry’s greats. To be part of such a great group is an honor. The fact that they considered honoring me…it was pretty special.”