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Samuel Johnson, 76; expanded wax firm into corporate giant

MILWAUKEE -- Samuel Johnson, who became a billionaire by expanding the wax company started by his great-grandfather into the consumer products giant SC Johnson, died of cancer Saturday, his family said. He was 76.

Mr. Johnson, who retired as chairman of the Racine-based company in 2000, was ranked as the richest man in Wisconsin, with a personal wealth estimated by Forbes magazine this year at $7.4 billion.

Mr. Johnson's son Fisk Johnson, who succeeded his father as chairman, declined to comment Saturday night and referred questions to a company spokeswoman.

An obituary released by the company said, "Mr. Johnson believed `business should serve a higher purpose in life' and advocated corporate practices that valued people as much as profits."

In 1967, Mr. Johnson became the fourth generation to lead the 118-year-old family business that once was called Johnson Wax. He turned the business into four global companies that now employ more than 28,000 people, making furniture polishes, waxes, and other household cleaning products.

SC Johnson's annual sales rose from about $171 million to about $6 billion under Mr. Johnson's leadership. The company now generates more than $8 billion in annual sales and operates in more than 70 countries, according to the company's website.

In 1975, Mr. Johnson removed chlorofluorocarbon propellants from his company's products, three years before the government required it. Fortune magazine inducted him into the US National Business Hall of Fame, calling him "corporate America's leading environmentalist," the company said.

Mr. Johnson also was a philanthropist who showed a civic commitment to many projects. He was a founding member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which advised world leaders at the historic 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Most recently, Mr. Johnson joined a coalition of environmental, business, and religious groups in opposing a plan to build two coal-fired power plants in Oak Creek.

A Racine native, Mr. Johnson earned degrees from Cornell and Harvard Business School and served for two years as an US Air Force intelligence officer. The Johnson Graduate School at Cornell is named for the family.

Mr. Johnson leaves his wife of 50 years, Imogene, four children, 12 grandchildren, three step-grandchildren, and a sister. A memorial service is scheduled for Thursday.

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