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How Tanner Johnston and National Fleet Graphics learn from their clients

"We succeed when our customers succeed."

Pulse Magazine - Tanner Johnston
Tonner Johnston, of National Fleet Graphics, on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Dodge Center.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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When Rochesterite Tanner Johnston graduated from high school, he started working for National Fleet Graphics, his family’s business. His parents JoAnn and Corey Johnston started the custom graphic design and branding company in their basement in 2001, but now it includes a 20-person team.

“Having grown up in and around the company, I had developed natural curiosities,” says Johnston. “I had always been interested in the ‘business’ side of business. The creation of a product, marketing and acquiring customers, building and maintaining a team, the economics behind great products or services all interested and continue to interest me.”

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Now, at 25, and after having earned a Bachelor’s degree in business at Concordia University in St. Paul, Johnston’s official title at National Fleet Graphics (NFG) is Marketing Manager, though his actual work there requires him to fill several important roles.

Even as he earned his degree, Johnston found a way to continue working at the family business. To stay consistently involved in the day-to-day business, he had to take evening classes, weekend classes, and online classes.

“Of course, there were trade-offs to doing things this way, such as very long days, at times, considerable stress, and less-than-ideal social interaction,” he says.

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Ultimately though, he says the experience “was a great opportunity to be able to learn the context regarding particular business concepts while being able to directly and immediately apply or understand how they influence the work.”

Johnston feels that the combination of education and real-world business decision-making gave him a competitive advantage.

“The combination of experience and education in anything is more beneficial than one over the other,” he says, adding that both education and experience are important. “Having both together really allowed me to better tie everything together.”

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These days, Johnston has taken on increasing responsibilities at National Fleet Graphics, as his parents have been transitioning decision making for the company to him.

Johnston says his position at NFG requires him to work on much more than marketing: “Being a part of a small business typically involves wearing multiple hats, as some say, to fulfill all the necessary operations of the business."

Besides marketing, Johnston says he’s responsible for financial reporting and human resource management. He completes bank reconciliation, financial statement preparation, payrolls, and time-keeping management.

The work is rewarding for Johnston in part because it is so variable. “While some days are more challenging than others, I enjoy being able to tackle and solve problems across a variety of business segments,” he says. “Each day presents new tasks, and it seems like no day is ever the same as the last.”

Johnston lists focus, teamwork and trust as some of the entrepreneurial qualities that help his success with NFG. These features work together, since he depends on his team to complete their roles. He says it is important to give his team space so they can work “to the best of their ability.”

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Focus, teamwork and trust are also key to his commitment to keep NFG a customer-centered business. “Learning from and re-focusing back on customer satisfaction is what I believe contributes to our success and allows us to continue to grow our business and potential for new opportunities,” he says.

NFG offers a variety of services including creating colorful signs, graphics, and vehicle wraps. One of their services that has seen growing demand is creating wall graphics for area schools.

“While it hasn’t been very long since my school days, I do remember what the inside of schools looked like when I was enrolled,” says Johnston. “In my opinion, the visual difference is incredible. I think it is particularly exciting for the students. The spaces look more alive, vibrant, and colorful.”

Pulse Magazine - Tanner Johnston
Tonner Johnston, of National Fleet Graphics, on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Dodge Center.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Johnston gives examples of NFG-created wall graphics at schools like Triton, Albert Lea, and Pine Island. He’s particularly proud of a school project at Byron that includes an extensive mural outside their gym that includes a history of school athletes and their photos.

Marketing is one business aspect that Johnston is especially excited about. He enjoys working on the creative elements like imaging and wording as he crafts a branding strategy, but he’s equally interested in other pieces of the marketing puzzle.

Choosing mediums like digital, TV, radio, or print and evaluating metrics that result from a specific campaign are all things Johnston is excited about.

Giving back to his community is also important for Johnston. “I think some of the most inspiring work we do involves giving back,” he says.

NFG partners with non-profits, individuals, and other businesses that also give back. “Whether it be a charity event for a specific cause or person or a fundraiser to help those in need, being able to provide product at reduced or no cost to help communicate and inform the public about the mission these events are held to accomplish feels good, and we hope it increases the success of these events,” he says.

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When he’s not working to make NFG run smoothly, Johnston enjoys exercising and lifting weights, reading biographies and nonfiction, and traveling, especially to southern destinations with warm beaches during the winter months.

He is also an avid music fan and concertgoer. He says he spends a good deal of free time investing in the stock market, analyzing company earnings reports and conducting market research.

Johnston finds his work to be dynamic, exciting and ever-changing. The track that NFG’s printed products take from design through creation is one that focuses on the customer’s needs. “We succeed,” says Johnston, “when our customers succeed.”

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