Taking the leap: From Olympic athlete to small businessman

Dominic Johnson went from the hot lights of the Olympic Games to the cold freezer of the dairy aisle.

Some days he wonders which was tougher.

Johnson, 39, competed in the pole vault in the 1996, 2000 and 2008 games for his native St. Lucia, in the eastern Caribbean. His athletic career took him to 29 countries and the University of Arizona, where one coach called him “the best all around athlete we’ve ever had.”

The three-time All-American and anthropology major said goodbye to competitive athletics in 2008, and wondered what was next. It wan’t long before he found out, entering another world that was just as competitive and took every bit as much commitment. Five years ago, he and Kristel, his college sweetheart and wife of 14 years, launched Isabella’s Ice Cream.

It soon became their passion, but Dominic said making the transition from elite athlete to businessman has been difficult.

“I joke — but not really — that this is harder than qualifying for the Olympics,” he said. “There are so many things that are out of your control. When you’re an athlete you have lots of good coaches and physical therapists, so you get a lot of good advice. Then you start into something like this and it’s like you’re on your own.”

Steady growth

Isabella’s Ice Cream, named after their oldest daughter, now 14, was created in their kitchen and sold at street festivals and events in Tucson and in Sahuarita, where they have lived for eight years.

They moved to a warehouse south of downtown Tucson two years ago after raising more than $15,000 on crowd-funding site Kickstarter and picking up a contract to sell in Whole Foods Market in Arizona, California, Nevada and Hawaii.

They’ve since been picked up by Safeway and Haggen grocery stores in Arizona, and have secured a distribution deal with United Natural Foods Incorporated, the largest natural food distributor in the country, which now has them in nine states.

The couple who started selling pre-packaged ice cream out of the side of their electric-powered Model T replica now ships 4,000 to 5,000 pints of ice cream per month with help from eight part-time employees. They’re also preparing to move to a 2,500-square-foot facility in Tucson that’s about one-third bigger than where they are now.

Dominic said his athletic background has helped him deal with the hurdles they’ve encountered along the way.

“Being an athlete at that level takes so much dedication, and you’ve learned what it takes to succeed,” he said. “So that’s kind of how it’s been here. I mean, we probably shouldn’t be here. We probably should have failed three years ago, but part of being an athlete is you just go and go and go.”

Perfect partners

Dominic and Kristel make a great team. He’s well-versed in building and maintaining the machinery while Kristel’s business marketing degree is perfect for handling the financial side.

Kristel, who studied in China, Mexico and France, spends hours concocting flavor combinations as the company chef, and has supported the idea through thick and thin.

“I’ve always probably been his biggest fan, so I’ve always trusted him,” she said. “And when he’s made decisions I’ve always gone with them and it’s always worked out really well. So it’s a whirlwind, but it’s how our relationship started off. So when he first said he wanted to start this business, I said, ‘OK …,’ but I jumped on board and trusted him.”

Taking risks

The Johnsons said growing their business, which was launched with $800 from the college fund for Isabella and their other daughter Alexandra, 10, has been “adventurous.”

“We’ve definitely been willing to take risks that other people wouldn’t,” Dominic said. “Had I taken a job with a bank right out of college, would we be in better financial shape? Absolutely. Would I have enjoyed it as much? No way, because it’s kind of who I am, and I guarantee you most Olympians are the same way.”

One of the biggest risks was launching the company on their own after turning down several local investors. Dominic is happy they’ve stuck it out going solo.

“Not long ago, we were approached by a very qualified person who was willing to invest in our company. And people that knew him in Tucson all had great respect for him,” Dominic said. “And we almost did it, but we backed off. Our feeling was that we’ve made it this far on our own, let’s just keep going. And so we have, and I’m glad we did.”

He conceded that there are times when a cushion would be nice.

“There are certainly days where I wish we had a big investor,” he said. “Our compressor went down and if I have to replace it then it’ll cost me $3,000. And that’s the one thing that’s been really challenging is that we’ve done the whole thing ourselves. And if we had just started with a lump sum of money then I wouldn’t have to worry about the machines going down because I’d have new equipment. But when you’re doing it like we are, which is by a scoop at a time, then these are the challenges you have.”

Five years out

Five years into it, Dominic says they’re “in a good spot.”

“But is this where I thought we’d be? I don’t know, probably not. I thought that we would be further along,” he said. “But that’s because I’m an optimist.”

Kristel agrees.

“It’s been a lot of work,” she said. “It’s been more than I thought. I mean, it’s been a roller coaster ride. There are times when you’ll hit a bump in the road and you’ll ask yourself why you’re doing this, and then all of a sudden something amazing happens and you understand.”

She said seeing people enjoy her recipes validates the hours of hard work.

“These five years have been amazing,” Kristel said. “It’s been great to see it grow and to see everything pay off.”


Dominic Johnson

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