The Bill Johnsons
Big Apple Family Feud
Restaurant Group Ends Up In Bankruptcy Court As The Future Of A Valley Fixture For More Than 50 Years Hangs In The Balance
Johnny and Rudy Johnson.
By John Guzzon
Modern Times Magazine
Feb. 23, 2012 — When news started dribbling out late last year that the Bill Johnsons Big Apple Restaurants were heading to bankruptcy court, most longtime Valley residents decried the potential loss of yet another Arizona landmark that would fall silently into the history books.
The current management team, including daughters and a granddaughter of Bill Johnson, made it clear through public statements that they were doing all they could to save the business and to keep it family owned. By entering into chapter 11, the business could clear itself of debt and rebuild.
Without a doubt, two men took the bankruptcy news harder than most. After all, Rudy and Johnny Johnson, the sons of the restaurants’ namesake, had spent the majority of their lives building and working in the restaurants their father had turned into the hottest spot throughout the Valley in the 1960s and 1970s.
At the end of January, though, Sherry Cameron, CEO of Bill Johnsons Restaurants and a niece of the two brothers, released a statement claiming “relatives” had been trying to force liquidation of the business which would see the storied Valley landmark forever swallowed by time.
“Some of my relatives have petitioned the U.S. Bankruptcy Judge who's hearing our case to convert it to Chapter 7 (that’s liquidation). This is a petulant and self-destructive move, one that will eliminate hundreds of jobs, and it shows you the sort of destructive nonsense I've been dealing with,” Cameron said in a statement. “I can't forget that are (sic) real people and real families who depend on those jobs. We’re talking about a devastating blow to hundreds of people, many of them folks who have been with my family for decades. It's simply unthinkable to me a court would act on this motion and shut down five going concerns and throw that many people out of work in this economy. And that's not to mention the hurt to their families, our suppliers, our loyal customers, and on and on. Our hearing is this Tuesday. Will you come and show your support? We want the judge to see that this is a real business, with real lives at stake.”
Rudy and Johnny Johnson, however, vigorously deny that they are trying to force a liquidation of the restaurants. Instead, they say they are the victims of a smear campaign and are being forced out of the business their father built and they grew. The Johnsons and their attorney, Dan Maynard, told Modern Times Magazine last week that the “request” to move the bankruptcy filing to chapter 7 was a legal maneuver that would have only been made if Judge Sarah Sharer-Curley denied the appointment of an examiner to review potential sales and the sale process.
“So when you see this idea that they (Dena Cameron, Sherry Cameron and Sherry Novak) have always wanted to control, manage and run the restaurants for the benefit of the employees, it is not consistent with what they were telling us at the board meetings,” said Johnny and Rudy Johnson’s attorney, Dan Maynard. “They were spending so much money on professionals and accountants and actuaries that I advised Johnny and Rudy that they should probably look at putting receiver in charge of the restaurant.”
In short, a family feud erupted into the public arena.
According to Rudy and Johnny Johnson, after the death of their father in 1966, the Johnson family business held its board meetings over mom’s kitchen table. But shortly before the death of their mother, Gene, in 2010, Johnny and Rudy Johnson say their sisters, Dena Cameron and Sherry Novak as well as their niece and current CEO, Sherry Cameron, began a process to get them out of the family business.
“It is really sad to stand back and watch what has become of our family because it was such a beautiful beginning. We came here in 1956 and our restaurants are legendary. I was in it when I was 17 and out of it when I was 71,” Rudy Johnson said.
After patriarch Bill Johnson died in 1966, his four children, Rudy, Johnny, Dena Cameron and Sherry Novak had equal shares in the family business. Their Mother, Gene, also held a chunk and was the peacemaker. According to Rudy and Johnny Johnson, the family worked together as well as any other family business — but with more peaks than valleys — for many years.
“My older sister Dena, she did have a very important job, don’t get me wrong, and me and my brother loved and trusted her in her job — she was handling the money, paying the bills — but my older sister never physically worked in the restaurants, she was the bookkeeper,” Rudy Johnson said.
When Dena Cameron’s daughter, Sherry, came back to Arizona after working overseas for several years in 2009, she acquired a chunk of stock and things began to change soon after, according to Johnny and Rudy and their attorney, Dan Maynard.
“There is now not an equal distribution of stock. The four children all have an equal distribution of stock, but now with Sherry coming in as the grandchild, she now has stock so then she, her mother and her aunt can control all of the board meetings,” Maynard said.
After Sherry Cameron, a graduate of Thunderbird, The School of Global Management, came back from her overseas career, Rudy and Johnny claim they supported her ascension to CEO to appease their dying mother who told them to give Sherry a chance at running the restaurants. But what ended up happening is prices were raised, administrative costs went through the roof and the Great Recession stymied growth — all roads that eventually lead to bankruptcy, according to Rudy and Johnny Johnson.
“I gave up my salary on 2008 completely and Rudy gave up part of his salary and Dena took the salaries we gave up and added them to hers. There were ways of saving money and saving the business. You talk about greed, I think the greed sits on the other side,” Johnny Johnson said.
By early 2010, it was agreed that Johnny and Rudy would leave the business over disagreements over how the company was being run.
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