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Q&A: Stephen Johnston, Chief Executive Officer, SmartSynch

SmartBoss

Johnston leads SmartSynch onto national stage

Stephen Johnston has quickly established himself as one of the top young CEOs in Mississippi. Since taking the helm at SmartSynch, the company has signed milestone contracts and forged relationships with some of the largest U.S. corporations. The MBJ recently ran down the busy executive and asked him about his unique career path, his service on the Momentum Mississippi board, his advice to budding CEOs and more.

Q —  What led you to SmartSynch? How does one go from investment banker to CEO of a smart grid technology company, and how has your banking and finance background helped you at SmartSynch?

A — My first job out of college was in commercial lending and investment banking. This experience was invaluable, as I learned how to evaluate businesses, create winning business models and attract capital from institutions. I also learned how important it is to surround yourself with the smartest people you can find. In the mergers and acquisitions world, only the best people were selected to stay with the combined company after the transaction was completed — a concept that did not go unnoticed by me. It was also true that the CEOs that hired the best people were often the ones chosen to run the combined company.

Investment banking was hard. The hours were long and there was no room for mistakes — you had to get it right the first time, every time. It helped me to develop a strong work ethic. I saw so many different companies and business strategies in investment banking which allowed me to develop broad perspectives. These perspectives prepared me, in every way, to lead SmartSynch to where it is today.

Q —  What have been the biggest challenges in getting your SmartMeters to the marketplace, and how did you overcome them?

A — We have been in this business for more than 10 years — and even coined the term “smart meter” before it became a household name. But just in the last few years — thanks in large measure to a perfect storm centered around a heightened emphasis on energy conservation and environmental awareness — have we seen our industry really move into the national spotlight.

To take it one step further, you will be hard pressed to find a company and situation more attractive than what SmartSynch has right now. All of the winds are blowing in our direction in terms of a huge international push to build a smart grid. There is an enormous demand for our technology and product offerings right now. We’ve got an incredible window and have to make the most of it.

Q —  What have been the most important SmartSynch milestones? Signing the deal with AT&T last year has to rank high, right?

A — Our partnership with AT&T in early 2009, and other major cellular companies since then, has enabled us to offer a cost-effective alternative to private network solutions to utilities of all sizes. This really put us on the map as a company that could shift the smart-metering landscape for the good of the entire utilities industry.

Our announcement two months ago that we were selected by Texas-New Mexico Power for a 231,000-unit smart meter deployment throughout the state of Texas further validated the use of cellular networks for residential smart metering — to the extent that it was a game-changer for our industry.

The bottom line is commercial wireless carriers now realize the growth opportunity, and have radically reduced their pricing to make our solutions more cost effective than any viable alternative.

Q —  Jackson is not exactly thought of as a center of technology and innovation. In your travels and meetings out of state, do you ever get, “You’re headquartered where?'” Do you feel sometimes that you are an ambassador for the state?

A — I love our state — I love what it has given me. I’ve always wanted to do something significant for Mississippi. Now I’m living my dream of helping create a high-tech, successful company and passing on a passion for energy conservation.

This company and our products are testaments to what you can do in Mississippi. I’ve learned if you can think big enough to attract customers, investors and employees from anywhere in the world, you can develop a transformational company. The key to making significant progress has been our vision, as well as assembling the best talent to achieve it.

It’s a great feeling to see our technology used globally. It’s very important to us at SmartSynch to make a difference from right here in our backyard.

Q —  Tell us about your service on the Momentum Mississippi board.

A — It was an honor to take part in a movement to put Mississippi “first,” and capitalize on our state’s many distinct resources.

Q —  Why are you so active in education, and do you think you would have made a good teacher?

A — I am a true believer in the quality of education you can receive in Mississippi. Our company, led by Mississippi-educated people, is at the center of the effort to solve the energy crisis through high technology that provides both cost saving and conservation benefits to utilities and their customers.

As for my teaching skills, two years ago we began reaching out to the younger generation with a targeted education effort on the virtues of energy conservation. We created the Mississippi Smart Kids Initiative to educate fourth-graders throughout the State of Mississippi about energy and energy efficiency. It was a program specifically designed to change their behaviors and make them knowledgeable energy citizens. Since launching the program, I have spoken to approximately 1,200 kids. This experience really has served to further my appreciation for all teachers and their daily contributions to society.

Q —  What advice would you give budding executives? What does it take to make it in Corporate America?

A — I have several thoughts here, but my top three would be: Find a mentor with whom you can share ideas – someone who will challenge you to think “differently” from time to time; surround yourself with the best people you can find – don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you in any given area as it will only serve to make your company better; and, perhaps most important always strive to maintain a proper balance in your life — between your career and your family.

Hometown: Jackson
Degree(s): University of Mississippi with degrees in banking and finance and managerial finance
Hobbies/Interests: Golf, hunting, fishing, coaching youth sports and spending time with my family.
Favorite Place to Eat: Cinco De Mayo restaurant. Our family eats there every Sunday evening.
Favorite Movie: “Top Gun”
Last Book Read: “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis
Person(s) who inspired you the most: My mother and father

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