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VOL. 132 | NO. 65 | Friday, March 31, 2017

Johnson Comes Back to Memphis to Lead Comprehensive Pharmacy Services

BY LANCE WIEDOWER, Special to The Daily News

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Calvin “CJ” Johnson came home to Memphis in February to take over as CEO of Comprehensive Pharmacy Services after the past few decades traveling the world, first as a part of the U.S. Army and more recently as an executive in the health care industry.


The Memphis native and Westwood High School graduate wasn’t looking to return to the Bluff City; it was a coincidence, really, when a head hunter contacted him about a job opening as CEO of Memphis-based Comprehensive Pharmacy Services, the largest hospital pharmacy services provider in the nation.

He jumped at the opportunity to return home, beginning work on Feb. 20. It enabled him to spend time with his mother, who passed away in mid-March.

Johnson replaces Don Nickleson, who led CPS for 17 years. Nickleson was promoted as the full-time executive chairman of CPS’ board of directors, where he will focus on developing initiatives that maximize the company’s growth opportunities, including strategic acquisitions, partnerships, large-scale sales support and service line extensions.

“As we approach CPS’ half-century mark, we are well-positioned to shape our future with CJ as CEO, backed by the great talent we already have at CPS,” Nickleson said in a statement announcing the move. “CJ brings a depth of experience with a large number of hospital systems of all sizes, and I am excited to work closely with him and the board to develop strategic initiatives that will continue to drive CPS forward as the premier health care organization in the pharmacy industry.”

CPS was founded 45 years ago. Today, it employs more than 2,000 pharmacy professionals, providing services to more than 600 hospitals and health care facilities’ pharmacies. Johnson’s role is to help the company grow.

“There is plenty of potential for growth,” he said. “I wouldn’t have joined if I didn’t see value. We’re learning how to be grown up even though we’ve been in business for nearly 50 years. This company is ready to take off.”

Growing up in southwest Memphis, Johnson was the youngest of six siblings raised by a single mother. He was a good athlete and better student, which helped earn an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After a year of prep school, he attended West Point, graduating in 1985 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

He wanted to fly helicopters but his vision wasn’t good enough, not to mention hearing loss in his right ear. He was disqualified and became a maintenance officer instead.

“It’s one of those things you think your career is over because you can’t be combat arms,” he said. “It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I was learning more about serving customers.”

He spent most of his time in Germany and at Fort Knox, Kentucky. After five years, he met his future wife and moved on from the military. They have two daughters, the oldest a soon-to-be mechanical engineering graduate at Cornell and a sophomore majoring in public health at Syracuse.

After the U.S. Army, Johnson moved to Corning, New York, where he worked for Corning Glass for six years and also went back to school. He later earned an MBA and master’s in engineering management from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

He also worked at Gateway Computers and later ran international operations for Kinko’s. He enjoyed the job, but constant international travel had him away from his young daughters for weeks at a time.

He woke up on Father’s Day 2002 in Singapore, only he had no idea where he was. Thirty days later he quit the job, ultimately staying around for six months to train his replacement.

He then spent the next 14 years at Sodexo, where he was president of the hospitals division that was responsible for $3.2 billion in managed volume across the U.S. and employed more than 22,000 people. He held that position, working out of San Diego, until getting the call to come home to Memphis.

“Memphis for most people, coming from San Diego, they say, ‘Are you crazy?’” Johnson said. “But this is where I grew up. It was a major plus to be closer to my mom and have more time with her.”

Sadly, just a month after beginning his position at CPS, Johnson’s mother passed away. But after spending 30 years living away from her, he said he’s grateful to have had those final weeks with her.

Johnson and his wife are still in transition mode. They have a San Diego house to sell before fully settling in the Bluff City. He’s also quickly learning the ropes of his new position.

“The past month has been drinking from a fire hose in terms of the technical aspects of this job,” he said. “We have over 2,000 bright and intelligent pharmacy professionals. From Day One on the job I’ve met so many smart and intelligent folks. The reception I’ve received, it’s just that good old-fashioned Southern hospitality.”

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