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Charm, fervor marked ex-CEO

Charles “Junior” Johnson, the founding CEO of PurchasePro who Thursday was found guilty of white collar crimes, charmed his employees with his enthusiasm and generosity in the early years.

But the family atmosphere later changed to one more resembling a pressure cooker where executives felt compelled to cover up facts and old-time workers began to resent newly hired senior executives.

The company’s first workers said they believed in the company product, software that allowed companies such as Hilton Hotels, to conduct online auctions for supplies, quickly and efficiently. They said the staff worked cooperatively to make PurchasePro succeed.

“It was exciting,” said Mary Alyce Smith, former vice president of human resources. “We were like a family.

“Junior inspired everybody to be the best they could be,” Smith said. “Junior was a grand guy, and we all loved him. He would do anything for you.”

Shirley Lizotte, former manager of documentation and knowledge management for PurchasePro and the 20th employee at the company, remembered working at tables in a dusty warehouse on Industrial Road south of Tropicana Avenue.

“All the men wore suits and ties,” she said. “We were dressed for business” in order to impress visiting clients.

“It was a fairyland opportunity for all of us, the beginners who he allowed to fly,” Lizotte said. “It was my baby, and I wanted to see my company succeed.”

Many employees were computer geeks and recent college graduates who hoped to build a career at PurchasePro.

Associates describe Johnson as a generous man. When the company went public, he gave every employee an embossed, leather briefcase.

The company held a Christmas party in 2000 at the Las Vegas Hilton with entertainment from the band Earth, Wind & Fire. Johnson gave Rolex watches to all the officers.

After going public, long-time employees say that Johnson hired officers from large public companies.

Many of the new officers didn’t understand the financial limitations of a start-up company and made imprudent decisions, they say, but the executives were immediately vested with company shares.

The pressure of meeting Wall Street’s expectations for PurchasePro weighed on Johnson. He threatened an accountant with Arthur Andersen, causing the accounting firm to withdraw as PurchasePro’s auditor, according to the verdict on Johnson’s crimes.

When the board forced Johnson to resign in May 2001, he threatened Senior Vice President Ed Kim, according to the verdict.

“Every dog has his day, and I’ve got nothing but time now,” Johnson said. “I’ll get you back someday for what you did to me, and you’ll never know when.”

Kim, who was charged with no crimes, later testified for the prosecution against Johnson.

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at jedwards@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0420.

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