Charlotte brand builder Greg Johnson uses lessons from Nike and church to make a mark on the Queen City.
Greg Johnson has a favorite anecdote he often shares with the entrepreneurs and students he mentors, dating to the late 1980s when he was marketing director for the Nike team building the Jordan Brand of shoes created by basketball legend Michael Jordan.
“I got a sense of what it was like to be an entrepreneur where [Nike founder] Phil Knight has these amazing stories,” says Johnson, who was then based at the company’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters. “You look around and see more than a dozen buildings and understand it’s a multibillion-dollar business and realize it all started from selling shoes out of the trunk of a car.”
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Such is the power of a simple idea executed well, says Johnson, a Rocky Mount native who returned to North Carolina to work at Charlotte’s BooneOakley ad agency and later started Orbital Socket, a Charlotte-based marketing and brand-engagement company. “All companies were entrepreneurial ideas at one point, no matter how big they are.”
Uncovering what’s possible is a personal mission for Johnson. His experience and values-driven approach is paying off with a variety of entrepreneur clients on the cusp of success and established companies including SPX, Coca-Cola Consolidated and EnPro Industries.
Seeking to understand others is a motivating factor throughout Johnson’s personal and professional life. His path includes an undergraduate degree in journalism from UNC Chapel Hill, where he met his wife, Carole, and a graduate degree in exegetical theology from Western Seminary in Portland, Ore., in 2016. He served on the leadership council at Grace Covenant Church in Cornelius in north Mecklenburg County for four years and remains active there.
“Having been in the ministry has helped me connect with different groups and audiences,” says Johnson, who co-founded Orbital Socket with Carole, a Bronx native who is the director of client services. “At the core of what we do, it’s all about studying and trying to understand people. That’s how we build our strategic platforms and the work we do.”
After eight years at Nike, Johnson spent most of the 2000s as an organizational development director for a large Baptist church in Portland, Ore., then was a partner at a sports-focused marketing company. By 2010, he and his wife wanted to live closer to their families in North Carolina. A mutual friend connected him with BooneOakley co-founder David Oakley, also a Chapel Hill grad who married a New Yorker.
He spent four years at the Charlotte agency, whose clients include Bojangles and the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. He left in 2014 to start Orbital Socket.
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority has hired Johnson to lead several projects, including “Rediscover Charlotte,” a campaign aimed at drawing people back to the city following the pandemic. “I’ve held Greg in high regard as a brand builder and marketing leader,” says Gina Sheridan, the authority’s chief marketing and communications officer. She has known him since 2010. “I love thinking big and dreaming even bigger with Greg.”
Johnson, 53, has shown a willingness to stick with projects through thick and thin, Sheridan says. “While so many agency owners hook you with their dynamic personalities and ability to say just the right thing to win the business, Greg is as present on day one as he is the day the job is done.”
SPX picked Orbital Socket over several firms to help improve the Charlotte-based industrial products company’s internal-communications and talent-management programs, says Chance Brown, director of talent development and diversity and inclusion. “Greg didn’t come with a prepackaged pitch; he had questions and told us he needed to fully understand who we were and what we were after before he could tee up an approach. It really impressed us.”
In building Orbital Socket, which employs 12, Johnson says he’s tried to support people of color and younger marketers. His wife worked for media giant Conde Nast in New York, then joined Nike in Portland, when the couple moved there. She later became a stay-at-home mom helping raise the family’s four children.
“I’ve had incredible people that have helped me along the way,” Johnson says. “I want to give that back to the world as well. Advertising and marketing firms don’t have a lot of representation of people of color. I wanted [Orbital Socket] to be that. I wanted to pour into others everything I know and set them up for massive wild success.”
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To support entrepreneurs, Johnson worked with Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones to establish NXT | CLT, a business accelerator for minority-owned businesses. Their view was that Charlotte lacked a nonprofit focused on those owners.
The program started in 2020 with a cohort of eight businesses undergoing 18 months of assessment, evaluation and mentoring from area business leaders. Johnson led a private fundraising that doubled the $250,000 budgeted by the city for the initial group and recently locked in another $500,000.
Johnson was the nonprofit’s initial executive director, though the group is hiring a new leader. The program’s office is in downtown Charlotte’s Mecklenburg Investment Co. Building, which has been a home to Black business, fraternal and professional offices since 1922. After assembling a group of Black business owners, Johnson led a research effort to study both barriers to success and effective efforts in other cities.
“The data suggests that there were three areas that we needed to work with people,” he says. “One was making sure that they’re developing as a leader of a growing company, not just a startup. Access to markets was the second one, and the third one was access to capital.”
NXT | CLT’s success depends on assessing specific needs of each participating business and then developing plans. “Maybe [the business] is at a point where they need to scale or add a new location or get a new CEO to achieve exponential growth. … We come alongside those companies to get them to the place where they’re ultimately able to hire more people, grow their revenue, create generational wealth for themselves and for others and, for us importantly, give back to their community. “
Johnson has a Rolodex jammed with business and community leaders who are supporting his efforts with NXT | CLT. It helps that he is on the boards of the Atrium Health Foundation and My Brother’s Keeper Charlotte-Mecklenburg and is a past director of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte.
“I’m not sure how he finds the time to run his business given all the work he does in the community for the community,” says Mac Everett, a longtime Charlotte civic leader. “There are only a small handful of people like this I’ve known over my time, people who have done so much and so quietly.”
Paul Wetenhall is the former executive director of Ventureprise, UNC Charlotte’s entrepreneurship center, where Orbital Socket took space when getting started in 2014. Johnson’s ability to juggle various roles so effectively is a rarity, he says. “Greg is unusual in the sense that he has built a serious business while at the same time investing a remarkable amount of time in supporting the community.”
Don’t mistake Johnson’s soft-spoken demeanor for indifference however. He’s focused on growing Orbital Socket into a significant business. “We’re building something that will be a world-class advertising agency, able to compete on a national level.” ■