Johnson Labs creates products for hunting, cleaning, agriculture

The woman-owned STEM manufacturer makes a number of products in its 15,000-square-foot facility in Troy

Karla Johnson is CEO and Louis Johnson is founder, president and certified chemist of Johnson Labs. Photo by Stew Milne.

The front lawn sign sums the company well. “The Science of Nature,” is more than a catchy motto – it is a creed, practiced and aligned with Johnson Labs. Today is no exception.

On this visit, beyond the sign, inside the 15,000-square-foot facility, formulas move from paper to production. Chemicals are mixed, products are packed, and delivery is at hand. Such is a day typical of Troy, Alabama’s woman-owned, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) focused company. 

What started as a two-person operation was recently named the 2023 Alabama Manufacturer of the Year. “We are proud to be recognized,” says company CEO Karla Johnson, displaying the award given by the Business Council of Alabama and Alabama Technology Network.

What a difference 36 years make. The company has come a long way since its 1988 founding. 

In 2024, Johnson Labs is a chemistry-manufacturing center with more than 150 formulas, 12 patents and a national customer base. In 1988, Johnson Labs was Johnson’s kitchen. 

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During the company’s early days, company founder Louis Johnson and wife, Karla, held other jobs. He was a chemist with a food company. She was a high-school English teacher. 

“After we married, Louis had an idea for a hunting product, a scent eliminator,” recalls Karla Johnson. The invention, B Scent Free, originated in the newlyweds’ kitchen sink. “That was our flagship,” adds Louis Johnson. “We built the business, starting with that product.”

At the start, both worked full time in other jobs. He still does, as pastor of Vine Church in Troy. But he’s still the company president and its certified chemist — researching projects, creating formulas, implementing product development and troubleshooting.

Two weeks after Louis Johnson became a fulltime minister, Johnson Labs received the biggest contract it ever had. “Before that order, we did everything small scale by hand,” Karla Johnson remembers. “We had to pivot the business at that point.”

She had been a teacher for 30 years, but retired to become full-time CEO of Johnson Labs. “I never dreamed I would move from teaching high school English to running a STEM company,” she says. “I had a high-school background education in science and always had an interest in it, but not much training at the college level.”

Louis Johnson adds about the startup days, “We worked together, then and now. I am always available to help, but Karla is very good with managing people and organizing. She has done a tremendous job to grow the business.”

Neither of the two had marketing experience, so that part was hired out, allowing the duo to concentrate on science, production and a budding business. Employees experienced a learning curve and so did the CEO.

Savannah Herndon, an employee at Johnson Labs, pours a solution into a mixer at the labs’ facility in Troy. Photo byStew Milne.

Karla Johnson honed her STEM skills — fast. She also trained employees and still does. “We have a saying around here,” she says, discussing her workers and job requirements. “You have got to go math it.”

Two such employees are Brittany Black and Savannah Herndon. “The job requires a lot of math and calculations,” Black notes, as she monitors progress of a deer scent formula hunters cannot get enough of. “We constantly check viscosity, pH values and other factors. It has to be mixed just right. There is no error room.”

In a separate area Herndon mixes what will be a shower soap. “We mix and add chemicals based on the specific formula,” she says, while working the shower soap into a finished product.

Karla Johnson notes about her employees, “It takes about six months of training before one is fully ready to be a mixer. It is a key role. We find that our best mixers start at entry level positions and show interest. They tend to stay and develop into the job roles.”

She continues, “Our employees preferably come from STEM backgrounds, especially our mixers, who must know basic chemistry. It is a big learning curve if they haven’t had that training. We take high school and college students who have STEM backgrounds and take them a step further.”

Karla Johnson notes, “We work in the science world. Viscosity, pH levels, formulas and other aspects of chemistry were learned in classes. We are the real-life application for what they learned.”

On a side note, the CEO says, “Currently, all of our mixers are women. That’s kind of unusual and unplanned but it’s where we are now. There is a push for more women in STEM. I have learned much more about chemistry and science than I had from the beginning days of this company.”

A knowledge of chemistry through STEM is vital, according to Louis Johnson. “STEM skills learned in school can be applied anywhere. If you have a science and math education background, it definitely moves you to the top of the list.”

In addition to its original B Scent Free product for hunters, Johnson Labs makes a variety of cleaning and other products. Photo by Stew Milne.

He also explains, “Good STEM knowledge is applicable to workplace safety as well. Johnson Labs’ workers know the characteristics and the science behind the chemicals. The STEM training you learn in school provides a good foundation for understanding safety data sheets and the proper use of personal safety equipment (PPE).”

Currently, the hunting, fishing and outdoors market leads Johnson Labs’ product line. But Louis Johnson sees that changing. “I think agriculture will eventually pass the hunting and fishing market. Hunting is big but it is seasonal. Whereas with agriculture, it is always the growing season somewhere in the world.”

Other Johnson Labs markets include laundry, janitorial and cleaning, restaurants and fleet management. More will be coming. As manufacturers, the company wants to always create new products, improve existing products, and get into more markets, Louis Johnson says.

It’s a big step from those humble kitchen-table beginnings.

Emmett Burnett and Stew Milne are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Milne in Auburn.

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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