Nicholas V. Johnson built his business from the ground up, and hopes others will follow him up the ladder.
WRITTEN BY WES CIPOLLA
READING, PA —
Nicholas V. Johnson’s friends tell him that all it takes to be rich is to roll up your sleeves and work hard.
Johnson tells them that that’s a load of hooey (he used a different, unprintable word).
“What I tell ’em is the reason you’re rich is because your parents left you something,” Johnson, 54, says. “You work hard, but you had a hell of a start. My parents didn’t leave me nothing. They told me you need to get an education. You need to work hard. It’s not anything wrong with you, it’s just that the cards didn’t fall in the right place. When one door closes another opens.”
It’s a rainy Monday afternoon, and Johnson is sitting in a barren office inside the JumpStart Incubator at the Berks County Community Foundation. That morning, like every morning, he woke up grateful, and read positive affirmations to himself. It’s the end of a long journey from being “a black kid that came up poor in the city of Reading,” as Johnson calls himself, to being the founder, president and CEO of TEM Care Behavioral Health, which provides support to adults with autism in seven Pennsylvania counties.
“I was always interested in people,” he said, “so when I was in HR and in labor relations, I was always helping people… I was always interested in people, and how they function, and what makes them tick.”
Johnson always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. He grew up on 13th Street, and found two mentors whom he credits with everything.
“I was always a young man who listened to the old and the wise,” Johnson said. “You don’t get old by being no fool.”
One was Ralph Elia, of Reading’s Elia Auto Body, who taught him a good work ethic. The other was Reba Templeton, a schoolteacher and black advocate who taught him the value of a good education.
“She told me that you’re not less than anyone,” he remembered, “she taught me to pick myself up from my bootstraps. When things don’t go well you don’t complain about it, you dust yourself up and keep moving.”
Templeton used to say that a hard head makes a soft behind. She taught Johnson that learning from others’ experiences means you don’t have to suffer from learning things “the hard way.”
In 2001, Johnson was a single father of two working for MetEd. He decided to go back to school, and graduated from Albright College with a degree in organizational behavior with applied psychology in 2005. He attended a creative leadership seminar in North Carolina, where he caught a glimpse of the Dalai Lama and his entourage, who tasted His Holiness’s food before it passed his lips. He coached basketball for 30 years.
“I believe in win-win situations,” he said, “so what you end up doing in coaching is, there’s a strategy. How do you move people to get them to do what you want them to do, build their confidence up and tell them that the sun will come up tomorrow?”
Coaching helped Johnson with problem solving, in both behavioral health and chess. In every aspect of his life, Johnson is evaluating his strategy, and trying to keep up with others. He tells everyone he knows to read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
“You might not like what I had to say,” he said, “but I was honest and I was forthright with it. If I have to fire ya, I will fire ya.”
Teaching, Educating and Mentoring
In 2014, he and his vice president, Joey Negron, were working with youth with behavioral issues at a company called Progressions. Negron brought up the possibility of working with adults, and the two founded TEM Care. TEM stands for Teaching, Educating and Mentoring.
“If you wanna be an entrepreneur,” Johnson said, “you gotta understand you have to work long hours and long days. When I started for the first seven months, I didn’t make a dime. That’s business.”
“He’s a great communicator,” Negron said about Johnson, “he’s a very good listener, he’s a good team member, always willing to support me and support others. He’s a very funny guy, intelligent, really has, you know, a good heart.”
You don’t have to go to Negron to hear that. When it comes to entrepreneurship, Johnson calls himself “one of the best that ever did it,” and prides himself on his leadership skills and “gift of gab.” He compares his success to a ladder. He wants to leave the ladder down like his mentors did for him, so people can climb to the top after him.
The field of behavioral health has changed drastically since TEM Care was founded. Originally, what Johnson and Negron did was called community inclusion, what Johnson refers to as being a “glorified babysitter.” Nowadays, TEM Care does community support, a more intensive program that includes teaching autistic adults life skills such as cooking, cleaning and budgeting, along with offering family therapy and behavioral specialist work. 15 years ago, Johnson never thought of autism. Now, he wants people to know that autistic adults are a diverse group, that is not dumb or ignorant.
“What I’ve learned is to listen,” he said. “Listen to what they’re asking for, and then you try to meet them where they’re at.”
Johnson noticed that awareness of children with autism was increasing in the mainstream. But, he asked, what happens when those children become adults?
“A lot of people that don’t know and don’t work with that population may have a misconception,” he said. “All of them are unique, they bring a different skill set to the table. You learn from them as much as they learn from you.”
Johnson is currently planning to extend TEM Care’s services to adults with intellectual disabilities.
“It’s just a good feeling that I have,” he said, “because when I was younger I had some people move me along the way. I don’t wanna get too religious on you, but I’ve been blessed and fortunate in that regard.”