A Dale County native, who had an idea in high school of what his career path might look like, said he doesn’t measure success by how much money he makes.
John Watson, an area businessman known for his achievements in local, national and global business partnerships, said he believed success was marked by a life that is balanced between church, family and work, and by taking opportunities in a career one enjoys. Watson offered his business insights during a professional development luncheon held by the Dothan Area Young Professionals group at the Dothan Country Club on Wednesday.
Watson mentioned details on a few of about 17 ventures which he started or purchased since the 1970s. Two experiences he highlighted were a real estate pursuit in which about 20 post offices were built and leased to the federal government, and the success of the latex gloves and condom company called Aladan that fulfilled a more than $70 million federal contract to furnish condoms for third-world countries.
Watson said he sought opportunities in real estate some time after purchasing Smith’s Inc. in Dothan with two others in 1970. The company is a mechanical contractor and engineering company that was started by Watson’s former boss, Jim Smith, in 1954.
Watson said he believed he wanted to be a mechanical engineer ever since he was a ninth grader at Newton High School. He said he worked in the summers during high school and saved about $1,000 to pay for his first year of college at Auburn University, where he graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in 1960.
Watson said he was able to finance his education through a co-op opportunity during college by working at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville before he was assigned to Fort Rucker. Watson also served in advanced ROTC while at Auburn. He later went into service with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Although Watson knew he wanted to be a mechanical engineer, he said his path back to the Wiregrass wasn’t as clear-cut as he might have hoped. In fact, Watson said he didn’t know how he would come back and find a job in mechanical engineering in Dothan which, in 1954, had less than 15,000 people.
Watson said he and his wife Gail planned to pursue other degrees at Auburn in January 1962 before he got a notice to report to active duty in December 1961 during the Berlin Crisis. He said he later returned to work in Huntsville, where he read a job announcement in the Huntsville Times for a mechanical engineer position at Smith’s Inc. in Dothan.
He was offered the job at Smith’s Inc. and made $125 a week, which was $50 less per week than what he earned in Huntsville. He said he also had less vacation time.
But he was home.
“I knew what I wanted to do,” Watson said.
“I wanted to learn everything I could about mechanical construction and engineering because I wanted to go into business myself. (Smith) was a great guy. It was a blessing I came to work for him.”
Watson said he had the option to expand Smith’s Inc. globally or to focus his interests locally. He said he thought it was best to diversify rather than become the largest mechanical engineering company there was.
Among his first real estate investments was Jack’s Hamburgers, which was located on Ross Clark Circle. His name and company’s services have since been connected with dozens of buildings and businesses, including buildings at Troy University, the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, Gander Mountain, area post offices, and others.
“It’s so much fun,” Watson said.
“People ask me at 78 why don’t I retire. Retire and do what? I love what I’m doing. If you like what you’re doing, you’re going to be good at it, and if you don’t, you need to think about doing something else.”
Watson said he tends not to invest in companies that require intensive investments in capital and equipment. An unsuccessful venture he said he pursued was a daily newspaper called Wiregrass Today.
He said he seeks to pursue real estate he believes will be profitable later, and he said he considers partnerships based on whether the partner is an expert in the business being proposed.
“Jim Smith taught me a lot in selling his company to us, where we financed it and we paid it back with profits. That’s been a model and I use that model in everything I do,” Watson said.
“…When you’re dealing with people that are honest, and hardworking, and are not greedy, it really pays off because you don’t have to worry about that business. …I wouldn’t want to get in any other business if I was going to worry about it.”
Among Watson’s accomplishments are his induction into the Dothan Business Hall of Fame, Alabama Business Hall of Fame, and the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame. He has also served on the board of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.
DAYP, a program under the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce, launched in 2007 in an effort to unite and develop young professionals throughout the community.