Please note: This story contains reference to someone who has died.
The first of his family to graduate in a household where consistent employment was hard to come by, Michael Johnson always knew he wanted to have his own business.
The Noongar man, former Fremantle Docker and now business owner said growing up in Belmont alongside 10 siblings “was always tough”.
“We had our struggles as an Indigenous family, talk about money, talk about income, talk about employment. That was always tough, especially being a big family,” he told NIT.
“Mum hardly worked, stepdad hardly worked … the older brothers, they hardly worked as well.”
Although Johnson had a good relationship with his stepfather, he says football on the weekends with his father was his outlet.
“I would always have my dad to drop me off at football … I would play my footy match then we’d go watch East Fremantle play … and then we’d go and watch Fremantle Dockers play.”
Johnson said he and his siblings were obsessed with sport from the start.
“Sport was the number one thing. Whatever sport, you name it, we played it,” he said.
In his final year of school, Johnson had his sights set on the AFL draft but was knocked back. He was also knocked back the following year in 2003 until being drafted by the Dockers in 2004.
“I always wanted to play AFL footy because that’s what us Blackfullas do, we love playing the game of football. I thought I’d missed my chance after being overlooked two years in a row,” he said.
Entering the club, Johnson says the team’s other Aboriginal players immediately took him under their wing.
“It’s always hard to make that transition into the AFL system … it’s not as easy as just going out there and playing footy. It’s a lot more dedication.”
He played 244 games over 13 years at Fremantle and became a parent to three children during that time.
“I was 21 when we had our first … daughter, Ameliah. Later that year, my dad passed away,” he said.
“It was tough because he’s the one … that supported me through my career. His dream was for me to play AFL footy as well … he did see me play a few years which was good. But he was one of my number one supporters.”
Johnson said knowing he was achieving what his father had dreamed was what kept him going after the loss. He put the effort into eating right, training well, and playing even better.
“I think all those things that I’ve learnt … have helped me post-footy – with everything, not just business,” he said.
Heading towards the end of his career, Johnson said it was tough coming to the realisation that he couldn’t play footy forever and that he had to think about what came next.
“Over my career I ticked off a couple little things so I could prepare,” he said.
He completed a certificate in Indigenous mentoring, a small business course, and made sure to give back to community. Johnson used his AFL image and networks to his advantage to reach out to contacts that could help him find his way.
In 2018, the club told Johnson he wouldn’t be offered a contract next season. Instead, they offered him the new role of Indigenous Multicultural Liaison Officer.
“I was very honoured to be approached, we never had anyone do that role before. I was lucky enough to be asked to do that,” he said.
On the side, Johnson had also begun putting together his traffic management company Kany Bidi — meaning one path.
“I always wanted to own something myself in and around the Indigenous space. You know, how can I help my younger brothers, nephews, nieces, cousins, uncles?” he said.
It was a classic Perth scenario that got him thinking about what he might do.
“I was driving down Leach Highway one day and came across three traffic management companies,” he said.
“You reach the first one, and the traffic’s banked up … you think, ‘Oh it’s roadworks again’. Then you come across another one, and then I started thinking. Then this third one (went) for a stretch of over a (kilometre). There were three companies working on the one street, which was a bit weird.
“So, I went home and started googling … Indigenous traffic management companies, and there was only one.”
He says that’s when he started putting some more thought into it.
“I made sure that the last year in my career, I tapped into the right avenues in the club (and) outside the club to make sure that I was ready to leave AFL … and to own my own business.”
Fifty-one per cent owned by Johnson and forty-nine per cent owned by Stephen O’Dwyer, director at WARP Traffic Management, and Will Gliddon, owner of WARP Group, Johnson says Kany Bidi is about giving mob a chance at employment.
WARP Traffic already had an Indigenous arm, but no one was heading it, so Johnson offered to come in and run it as Kany Bidi.
“I felt that by tapping into another company that was passionate around the Indigenous space, it would be a lot easier,” he said.
“When it comes to experienced business owners in the traffic game, I think I picked the right ones.”
Johnson is the managing director at Kany Bidi and takes care of the company’s operations, and O’Dwyer and Gliddon support the business and management side.
Trading for just over a year, Kany Bidi has now secured a massive contract with MELconnx Consortium for Perth’s Metronet Morley-Ellenbrook rail line.
Kany Bidi and WARP are working together to take on the early works — a four-to-five-year job.
“It was too big for one traffic company to control, so that’s where both WARP and Kany Bidi came together to make an alliance for this project,” Johnson said.
“It’s the number one project every traffic management company wanted.”
For Johnson, at its core Kany Bidi is about helping Aboriginal people.
“Each individual that comes into the company, if they are keen on working and staying on the (Kany Bidi) books, I’m OK with that, but if they want to use it as a stepping stone, I will help guide them and push them out to our contacts and clients … I’m all for it because I want them to succeed,” he said.
“The reason why I’ve gone down this track is to help guide people … It’s not just my company, it’s my family’s company, it’s my kids’ company, it’s my mum’s company — it’s everyone’s because everyone benefits.”
By Hannah Cross