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June 24, 2019
Jim Johnson is the President and CEO of GE Johnson, a general contracting company founded in 1967 by his father, Gil Johnson. GE Johnson consistently ranks on ENR's Top 400 Contractors List.
A graduate of Kansas State University, Jim started out at GE Johnson as a laborer before eventually becoming vice president and later president and CEO. In our conversation today, we talk about growing up in a family business, running marathons, servant leadership, trends in the millennial workforce, and the best trail in Colorado.
Jim: My father's father, so my grandfather, was a general contractor as well in Salina, Kansas. So, my dad went to college, obviously thinking he would come back and join the family business. His father passed away when he was in college, which obviously changed my dad's career path. And after several stops with contractors in Kansas, he ended up in Colorado Springs, had an opportunity to go to California, opened up shop for a large contractor there, and decided to really start his own business in 1967 in Colorado Springs. So, really growing up as a child, I only remember my dad owning his own company. It's hard for me to go back, I was six at the time, for me to recall much other than my dad always owning his own company.
Eric: Did your dad ever tell stories about your grandfather and, like, the type of work he did and the types of things that he did to learn the business?
Jim: You know, he did. And courses to a kid that age, it's absolutely incredibly boring. They would have a lot of black-and-white photos of projects they did, Johnson Brothers builders in Salina, Kansas. And I just could not connect the dots how that was relevant to what I was doing at that point in time. But obviously, what he picked up is a tremendous sense of pride and tradition as he told those stories.
Matt: So, your dad just started the business from scratch in 1967? Did he specialize in any kind of building when he decided to start it?
Jim: It's a great question. I think at his true core, my dad was a very qualified estimator. A lot of contractors, the low barrier or the lowest hurdle to get over is hard bid work. So, at that point in time, Colorado Springs was growing as well. So, it kind of gravitated it him toward a lot of schools and smaller municipal-type projects because of the low-bid mentality.
Matt: When did he branch off into different types of buildings? How long did he stay in the municipality-type stuff?
Jim: You know, we started in 1967, and by already in 1968, we are doing work out of Colorado Springs. General contracting is very nomadic. But you can also start to see just reviewing our past history of projects, they started to narrow in on more relationships and [inaudible 00:02:21]-type clients. Some of the larger businesses in Colorado Springs, he was raked in and do repeat products for. I've gotta believe that was all on purpose, but we were still very opportunistic-type contractor. Even when I came back in 1984 it was still, you would read through our project lists and really say, "Okay. Exactly who are we?" You know, there's a little bit of retail, a little bit of government, a little bit of hospitality, two or three states, a little bit more opportunistic and availability of resources than it was strategic.
Eric: Did he build personal relationships with people, or was that something...? You know, you say his strength was an estimator, but did he have a flair for personal relationships and...?
Jim: Yeah. He absolutely did, which is kind of funny because a lot of the rap on estimator is, you know, they don't know how to handle relationships. But he has a strong personality, very driven to succeed. But he also was very good in relationships.
Eric: Was was your mother involved in the startup of the business, or was it mainly your dad?
Jim: If you look at the original articles of corporations, obviously, she is a secretary at that point in time. And actually, I am number three out of four kids. We were the original cleaning crew of the office. So, we were all kind of involved those early years. I think my mom's job at that point in time was to be as a stay-at-home mom. With four kids, that is more than a full-time job. And I think they made a very good team. I think they complement each other very well.
Matt: So, how far apart were all your siblings age-wise?
Jim: So, my sister, my oldest sister, is five years older, then I have a brother who's three years older, then my younger sister is eight years. I am certain after me, they really took a break to see if they wanted another one.
Eric: So, were you leading the cleaning crew or did the older sister lead the cleaning crew? Like, who was calling the shots then?
Jim: Yeah. You know how that works. It's the older sister. She led the crew, and she would still do that today if we were reassembled.
Eric: All right. So, you're painting this picture of very involved in the family business, your dad was wanting you involved at an early age. Was that out of necessity or by design? Was he kind of paving a path for you?
Jim: I don't think it was really by necessity. I think it was more by design. I think it was his vision of a family business. And I think that's kind of what he had grown up in, and he was trying to replicate that common theme, that common tie to the business.
Eric: You went from cleaning. Do you remember your job after the cleaning crew?
Jim: Yeah. Ironically, my mom passed away when I was 15. I think took me a lot of years to deal with. But anyways, I honestly believed that my Dad didn't know what to do with me that summer. So, he put me on a surveying crew. I was the rear chainman of a surveying crew, which that position doesn't even exist anymore, at $2 an hour on a large job that we had in Colorado Springs. I mean, I had to get driven to work and picked up and that it was really there that I fell in love with construction because even on a surveying crew because they are, it was hard earth works project, they would come behind us and excavate or cut and fill. And I could see the change or the impact, I mean, how important the layout was to the process. And I loved the dynamics of that environment changing.
Eric: Yeah. Do you remember anything from that first summer when you were doing that? Is there anything that stands out or a memory from being on the job site where you just went, "Oh my goodness. This is not what I expected it to be?"
Jim: No. I loved it. I loved the people. I loved the lunchtimes and, you know, hearing all these other people's conversation. And obviously, at age 15, there's quite a bit of age difference and how people want it to do better. And, you know, maybe sometimes they didn't agree with their boss and how that would get relayed and, you know, they didn't understand this. And so, I think you just learn a lot of how the labor force communicates, which I really enjoyed and felt part of it.
Matt: Did you get the sense that they were treating you like a normal person on a job site? Or did you think you got some kind of harsh treatment or a some favorable treatment from the other workers?
Jim: I had the first couple of years, nobody knows. I mean I have the wrong last name, right? And everybody wants to take it easy on you. So, every summer, because I would continue to work as a laborer for many years through high school and college. The first couple of years, I always felt that I went in with a chip on my shoulder. I figured out I had to work that much harder to get that recognition and to really prove my worth, which after a while our company was a size where everybody knew that I was a hard worker. So, that kind of went... I dispelled that rumor. But also, people were worried that I was trying to make them look bad. I was trying to outwork them and be the hardest worker, and they knew I had a pretty direct pipeline to the ultimate authority. So, you learn how to balance that. "What happens at work stays at work" type motto. We still have a few craftsmen that I worked with, they still work with us. And I just valued how I earned that hardwork reputation, and they're just the most important people to our company today as they were back then.
Matt: Do you have an example of, like, somebody who it was obvious that they resented you being there and how you overcame that?
Jim: Oh yeah. He just retired. It was another labor, and we are working on a large job. It was a power plant project. GE-Johnson just had a bid package of it and big hole, and we had to do a lot of backfilling, and a lot of the backfilling was done by hand. And so, I was watching him shovel, and I was trying to get one and a half shovel scoops per his. I mean, I loved being outside. Obviously at, you know, 16, 17 years old, you're still in pretty good physical shape. And also I had to do every night was go home and go to sleep. I had no other obligations or responsibilities. So, I just felt, you know, I was tired. And he just started throwing dirt in the air and shoveling and as fast as he could, and shoveling it on me and telling me, you know, how I was making them look bad. And yeah, it was pretty interesting, but I could not figure out why somebody would not wanna work absolutely as hard as they could eight hours a day. You know, I didn't understand that, and he helped me learn that by some of his examples and constructive criticisms. He left construction for a couple of years but, you know, "You're a silver spoon kid, you're gonna be fine. You're gonna go to college and have all these opportunities and, you know, this is the last time you'll ever be at this level." He went into real estate for a couple of years and came back as a craftsman, work his way through carpenter apprenticeship program into a superintendent, retired with us after 38 years. And I couldn't be more proud of that relationship. I mean, to me that really typifies who our company is, but also, you know, he had to kind of accept that we were gonna play different roles inside of the company. But for him to come back and follow my leadership through the transition of my dad and I meant a huge amount to me.
Matt: Yeah. That speaks volumes kind of a prodigal son situation.
Jim: Oh yeah. Yeah. My two sons have both worked for us, and I told them out of the, you know, "I will get you the job, but it's yours to keep." Yeah. And I also told them I would change the last name on their hard hat if they were smart. Of course, neither of them did, but they both understood and, you know, the feedback I got out of it is they both were very good workers, which I think there's a lot of lessons to be learned in that.
Matt: Yeah. How old are your two sons?
Jim: Thirty and 27.
Eric: But you were college-bound. So, you are on these job sites, but the goal was, you know, "This guy's gonna go to college." Can you walk us through kind of what you were thinking about, you know, the future of your career and college? Or was it kind of you were on one track, and college was just a one stop along the way?
Jim: Yeah. I think when you go back, I mean, we grew up in the era where everybody goes to college. That's how you're successful. My oldest sister was valedictorian of her class and went to Stanford and pre-med. My older brother was valedictorian of his class and went to this Colorado School of Mines on a scholarship.
Eric: Were you a valedictorian?
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. You know where the story is headed, right? And I think every kid always has to have their own identity inside of the family. And I was the student-athlete/class clown, and I put absolutely no effort. I didn't miss a day of school ever. I was always there, but that didn't mean I was more interested in the social aspects of it, you know, the environment and the relationships that I built that had nothing to do with learning. So, I was kind of caught by surprise. My ACT, SAT test scores were a amazingly average. Price is slightly above. And I knew I wanted to work in construction. What I did not know was what that exactly meant. And in a lot of colleges, that's housed in the college of engineering. So, half of my high school dumps into Colorado State University. So, I just assumed I would go there with everybody else. I did not give it much thought. They were kind enough to mail me a letter that said, you know, "Actually, we're gonna waitlist you. You're kind of borderline applications."
My Dad was a very strong supporter of Kansas State University, did a lot of things back there and would drag us back there for football games and stuff as a grown-up had mentioned. Then he goes, "Well, I've gotta be at Kansas State tomorrow for a meeting. If you wanna go, why don't you go?" And I said, "That's great." You know, a day out of school, get to go to Kansas. The next thing I really remember as I'm sitting in the dean of admissions office and he's got my transcripts, which I didn't send him. And he said, you know, "Well, we'll take you." And I just shrugged my shoulders and said, "Yeah. Okay. That's fine." And that began my history and association with Kansas State.
Eric: Oh, that's great. So, you said you were a student-athlete. What sports did you play?
Jim: Football and soccer. And if I could run like a second faster in the 40, I would have a lot better story. I'm incredibly slow, but I could catch anything that was thrown to me, and I love the block. But I learned a lot of different lessons being a part of athletics too, that practice improves your play. You can't just show up, you know, on game day, and the value of a team. And I think even when you're doing those sports, you're learning those lessons and how they're applied to business, absolutely. They are so true and so relevant.
Matt: So, did you play football and soccer in high school?
Matt: And then in the college as well?
Jim: Just intramurals in college. I had opportunity to go to a couple of smaller schools that play football, and I remember Dom College, I was going through their curriculum and what I might study at them and Kansas Wesleyan and boy, there just wasn't anything that looked remotely interesting for me to study. And I had gotten a... I'd actually had my leg broken in the last football game I played in the state playoffs and I kind of went, you know, "If I can get hurt in high school football like that, maybe my career isn't... Yeah. How far am I gonna go with this?" So, it was actually a pretty easy decision. I didn't struggle with it too much.
Eric: So, then when you started school, did you immediately go into architectural engineering?
Jim: Yeah. So, the way Kansas State is, it's the department of architectural engineering, construction science, and it's in the college of engineering. So, your first couple of years are, for the most part, the basic engineering, the calculus physics, static, strength of materials, types. Now I had not really done any work in high school, so I had to start behind. I needed to pick up, you know, college algebra and trigonometry type class and [inaudible 00:14:59] and get ready to go into the true engineering aspects of it. And I struggled. I had to swing at physics three times before I passed. The first two times I failed, I went to every class, but I had no idea what they were talking about. And Kansas State is not different than most colleges. The classes are sequential. You've got to pass physics before you can go onto statics with the strength of materials, then the various wood, steel, concrete construction ones. So, spend a little bit of time trying to learn how to learn, swinging and missing. By that time, I had already taken all my elective classes. When I look back in hindsight, it taught me a very valuable piece of identity of who I am, and it's perseverance. If you really want something bad enough, you've gotta stay with it. You will fail, but you've gotta get back up and try it again.
Eric: Do you remember, like, changing anything up that really led to success? Like, study habits, or time spent, or anything?
Jim: I did get to a point in my fifth year, I said, "Okay. I gotta get out of here. Enough is enough." And then I think I became a better student. But those first couple of years where you have all the social aspects and, you know, all the other distractions that you're learning to navigate and manage, I don't think I changed anything. I mean, you would try to recommend and say, "Okay. I'm gonna do it better this year. I'm gonna go to some of the health classes," and, you know, I would start off that way and quickly revert to the word "hope," you know, "I hope I pass." And hope is not really a plan. I have not gone back and looked. I probably should. I probably spent the equal number of semesters on academic probation than I did off probation. The last two classes I had to take, I got a 4.0. I mean, so, I absolutely understood it. I knew how to apply, you know, the things that I learned, they were concrete and steel design. And the sense of accomplishment in that, boy, I still struggle with physics today.
Eric: One of the first things that pops up when you Google your name, that you've stayed active in supporting Kansas State. So, obviously this has been an important time for you, and you felt very connected. Can you talk a little bit about some of those takeaways and how you reflect back on them and why you would support them with your money?
Jim: Yeah. And it's always tough to figure out when you're there and in that timeframe. I had a good college. It was longer than a lot of my family probably would have liked. But when I look back at some of the things that I believe have helped me be successful in the company, they are all lessons that I learned at Kansas State. And it's the type of college, you know, it's 20, some odd thousand. But as you get into your individual department, it was still a very scalable size. And I had some people there that kind of looked out for me and would grab me and try to hold me accountable. The values that I came out of through that process of the hard work, the integrity, the ethics, I really attribute to what I learned at Kansas State University beyond my diploma in architectural engineering construction science.
Matt: Were those professors that kind of looked out for you and hold you accountable.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. And it's so easy to just be a number, right? But they would say, "Hey, you know, I've noticed you weren't in class these two days," you know, "what's going on? And they did see potential in me, but it wasn't all just... I think there's probably times... Anybody growing up has a time where somebody needs to grab you and say, "Hey, I care about you, and I've noticed you're not doing the best you can," instead of berating them or... But also hold them accountable and actually give them the grade they deserve. I mean, like I said, I was not a great student, and they knew when I failed a class. And just because my last name was Johnson and my dad was an alumni, that doesn't mean you pass and get the move on. I appreciate that about them because I believe that's a little bit more how the real world works. And I'm sure it was awkward for them at certain times as well.
Eric: You finished college and immediately, "Hey, I'm built for this construction," but it was not your father's company that you went to work for right away. It was somewhere else. Can you talk about that?
Jim: Yeah. So, I was home on Christmas break, probably my first senior year. And, you know, basically, when you're home at Christmas break, I usually work a week or so to get some money. And then after that, I would go skiing or just be home to do laundry. You're really not a very active member of the family. And my dad told me, he goes, "Well, I think we need to go out to breakfast tomorrow morning," which is usually not a good sign because that is not something that we traditionally did. And we walked down the driveway, and he said, "Well, you know, I've decided that I'm not gonna hire you when and if you ever graduate." And I turned to him, and I said, you know, "That's perfect because I decided I'm not going to work for you when I graduate." We actually didn't even go to breakfast. We just turned around and went back in the house. And I think that was probably... I think it had to be difficult for him to do because I think he had always envisioned this family business, and I just needed some independence. And I needed to know if I really liked the business or not and I needed to go to work somewhere else to see if I could make it there. Now, what he did do is he said, you know, "I know some companies. Let me reach out and see if they're looking for any interns."
So, he did make the connection with Lynn Beck Construction from Houston, Texas. And keep in mind, this is... Still, everything's by phone calls or mail. And I was hired for them as an intern, they called it, on a project in Shreveport, Louisiana. So, I go down to Shreveport. Their definition of an intern is I was in digging the storm sewer ditches at $3.50 an hour. And it really didn't bother me, you know, I kind of have to. Well, it's not as much money as I wanted, but you know, I'll figure it out. And after about a week in the ditch, they'd figured out that I'd actually been around construction and then all of a sudden I'm on the concrete crew. You know, I'm starting to get up around 10 bucks an hour. And then they called me into the trailer one day and started... They really asked me what all I had done. They could tell I'd bet around a construction site. They said, "Well, we need a... We're almost done with the rebar, but we need an ironworker foreman, and we want you to do that." And I said, "Okay." They went, "You can pick out anybody on the crew you want." I picked out the hardest workers. I had never seen a set of rebar shop, and here I am running a crew. And we just did it with hard work. We got through that.
So, again, they, "Hey, have you ever... We have some layout problems," because the building was up and we needed somebody to lay out the interiors. And I had worked one summer on a surveying crew beyond my initial one. So, I ended up laying out all the building interiors and baseline controls. So now I'm up to, like, $20.50 an hour and we're working 60 hours a week as a real fast-track job. And they said, you know, "You ought to just stay. We realize you got one more year of college. We'll make you an offer now." And I didn't really even think about it because I knew the way I had grown up that that degree meant a lot to me. And if I didn't go finish now, I never would. So, it wasn't about the money, it was about kind of in my mind, doing the right thing and finishing that degree. And they obviously hired me right out of college as well. So, I worked for them for a couple of years in their Dallas operations.
Eric: So, it seems like you progressed pretty quickly in a short period of time there at that first job.
Jim: Well, it's called Louisiana, right? I mean...
Matt: Was there any part of it that you were trying to prove your dad wrong for him not hiring you, you go do it better somewhere else?
Jim: No. It was really just my own motivation. Just my own drive and desire to succeed, I think. I don't think at that point... I mean, I think deep down every child, for sure sons, wanna be loved by their dads. And for me, it was a very interesting relationship because I was able to... When I grew up, you could see the physical remnants of what your dad did. You know, my dad built this, and you'd look to the banker's son and say, "Well," you know, "what'd your dad do?" Yeah. And you can't see it. So, obviously, I had a lot of admiration for him and what he did. Now I think it was still more for myself at that point in time.
Matt: Yeah. Interesting.
Jim: I really do.
Eric: In parallel here, what's going on at GE Johnson?
Jim: You know, I think there's... I remember my dad's original expectations. I discovered this when we were writing our 50-year book. He thought if he could have a company that did about $10 to $15 million worth of work a year, he would be able to provide a reasonable living for his family. So, his original vision was just around his immediate family, not others. So, at this point in time, GE Johnson has had some success. They're getting some higher profile jobs in Denver. The market's a little more sophisticated. They're starting to narrow in on some of their niches, and they're probably in the $150-million range. I think the first year GE Johnson hit the ENR 400 was 1974. So, they're having some success. I think my dad's getting some notoriety. I think probably at that point, he had realized his dream of what he could do with the company. Then I think the second chapter for him is, "How do I get it to succeed me," and that's kind of what brought me back.
Eric: So, three years post-college at Lynn Beck, learning all different parts of the business?
Jim: Lynn Beck does things different than GE Johnson does. Their job site, they do all the hiring, firing, payroll. You know, I did all the job costing, subcontractor payment approvals, everything out of there. So, I sell a lot more administrative process as well as the build side. And early on there, I kind of got separated from the big jobs and had to... I went did as for them, smaller jobs, and it was just myself and a superintendent. And you basically do everything, and it was a wonderful experience.
Eric: So, then how do you end up back at GE Johnson? Like, what's the conversation that happens? Like, is it at the end of the driveway conversation again?
Jim: Yeah. Almost. He called one night after I'd gone to sleep and said, "Hey," you know, "we're short of an estimator. You interested in coming back?" And I think at the time my wife and I had moved a couple of times in Dallas to various apartments, and we were starting to ask ourselves, you know, "How do we get ahead down here?" I mean, how do you plug in instead of just sleeping here and driving to your job? Shouldn't there be more? So, the timing on my dad's part was very good. We were ready to leave. So, when I came back to Colorado, Colorado was in somewhat of a depression. And so, they were rebuilding up their bid department, the estimating department to chase a lot of work in New Mexico and California as well as some limited opportunities in Colorado. My dad knew I didn't like estimating, but he also knew how important it was. And so, I was in estimating for a little over a year before he finally gave in and put me back out in the field because my true... I really like the field. I thought those... I didn't understand what value the office brought to the process. The real activity and the real moneymakers were out in the field.
Matt: Yeah. How were you received at that point in time then? You got back out in the field after having some years away and then what does it feel like for you?
Jim: You know, I think the field actually accepted me better and easier. You know, some are the upper management in the office, like, probably got nervous when I came back. You know, "Now we're gonna have to..." You know, "He's probably gonna jump over us and take away my job," where the field guys accepted me very much, very easily. Liked my capabilities and, you know, I was part of a team very quickly. It was probably more of the office, I don't wanna say office politics, that's a little too strong, but I think in what had been a very closely-held company by my dad and having his son come back and, you know, with no interview process, no, you know, none of that, probably had a harder time getting acceptance in the office.
Eric: Yeah. Those first couple of years back there, how much interaction did you have with your dad at the office? Did you interact with them quite a bit or did you have any other kind of mentors at the company that took you under their wing?
Jim: Well, I think that's the funny part, right? Because he's your dad. So, if you wanna talk to him, you walk down the hall, walk into his office and... You know, which just freaked people out, you know. You just don't walk in to Gil's office, start talking to them. And plus, even then we more or less lived in the same neighborhood. So, we would go out to dinner two to three nights a week plus on the holidays, which I think made a lot of...very awkward. They knew I had a different platform and a different audience. So, I had to learn how to respect their privacy. I did have a couple of good mentors down below him that they would quickly say, "I know you're on a different path." And I would just acknowledge that, not sure what that path was, but I think my dad was gonna be my mentor whether I wanted it or not or whether somebody else wanted to do it. I think that that was just what he figured out he was gonna do.
Matt: When you got back, did you have a moment where you got incredibly excited about the prospect?
Jim: Yeah. I mean, you get to return home, and I had been gone long enough, which really isn't that long, but it still felt like home. And I think that's the good feeling. And obviously, with your name being on the logo and stuff like that, there's a huge sense of pride. And I don't think until later on, I understood the responsibility of upkeeping that brand that you just get to be associated with this success.
Matt: How would you describe your working relationship with your dad, especially those first couple of years?
Jim: I think the first couple of years was he was very quick to point out the shortcomings. And the shortcomings and maybe some of the other colleagues really wasn't looking for opinions or thoughts. I had to learn how to navigate those discussions because I was not gonna get constructive feedback, I was gonna get very negative feedback. Plus, I realized that if I didn't like somebody, I could absolutely set the stage where my dad would fire them. And so, that's a very, very slippery slope. So, I really didn't have any peers at work. We had a bunch of younger engineers, and we would try to do things socially, but at some point in time they start talking about their boss or their job, and then they would all look at me and... Yeah. So, you kinda give up that group as well, which was a collateral cost that I hadn't anticipated.
Eric: Yeah. So, when you were reestablishing your family in Colorado, were there a different network you then plugged into, if you kind of couldn't be workmates with other people at the company?
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. So, you get to be friends with your dad's friends. You know, it's a small generational gap. So, it was kind of no man's land there for a little while. Yeah. Because he would wanna go to, you know, his country club and stuff like that with his friends and dragged me along. And, you know, so it was kind of we did struggle a little bit to get our own kind of network of friends. And, you know, what's required of me was a little bit higher than some of the other people of my age in their careers, right? And so, it was a very demanding, the collateral costs of that relationship, I think, I didn't anticipate, didn't foresee, and you just keep doing it. And so, a lot of the friends ended up being more, you know, as we have kids more of they're parents and neighbors.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah. It's a fascinating thing because it is totally different, right? Like, people look at you, and they think, "Oh well, you're in the same situation as the other people of your same age," but you've actually been set apart, you know? You can't be. You can't be the same. And it's a hard realization. Interesting. All right. So, when, when did you get into long distance running?
Jim: Yeah. Even, you know, through college I would play around with, you know 5Ks, 10Ks and did that in Dallas just to keep physical activity up, I liked it. And then came back, I did get into a bunch of other high school kids that, you know, had their careers here too, and we started doing triathlons. And I've gotta be absolutely, they tell you this, you know, when you're taught to swim, basically you're taught not to drown, but they really are teaching you how to swim competitively or to race. So, we started doing these triathlons, and when I swim, it looks like a fist fight. I mean, you would think are sharks in there with me. So, we already started picking these triathlons basically based on the length of the swim.
Eric: Yeah. Find the shortest swim.
Jim: Yeah. Find the shortest swim, and still looking for things to do. I liked the time, I liked the training. And so, I quickly started to gravitate, you know, "Let's drop the swim," and, you know, "you can always ride a bike," and started pushing the distance up. So, I started training and doing marathons for a lot of years, which I really enjoyed and really loved. We got to the point where we would really just pick where we wanna travel and then start to...you know, and then find out the the marathon there. So, we kind of combined, my wife and I, our trips with what I like to do and running. So, it was a lot of fun.
Matt: Okay. I got a whole bunch of running questions. So, bear with me. We can cut this out if you don't find it interesting.
Jim: Oh, no. Yeah.
Matt: Okay. Do you run solo or with people?
Jim: I used to run with two other people, today I'm solo. They both... One injured out, and the other one just, we would run really early in the morning. It just doesn't work for her time.
Eric: Do you ever go to the website, letsrun.com?
Jim: I have. Yes.
Eric: Yeah. Okay. Do you find this interesting, all the runny news and the forums, or do you kind of just poke around?
Jim: Just more or less poke around. I mean, we had our own training manuals, and training programs, times, you know, we had certain courses, we had certain splits on our speed workouts. So, I would track those.
Matt: And did you get pretty deep into the weeds of training and physiology and you had...?
Matt: No. Okay.
Jim: No. I would wake up in the morning have, you know, three or four cups of coffee, a chew off tobacco, throw it out and go and run 15 miles.
Eric: Get really hydrated and then go out and run.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. And never stretch. It was absolutely awful. I mean, from that [crosstalk 00:34:39].
Matt: And then going and then go to a job site.
Jim: Yeah. No. Yeah. And then go work 10 hours. You know, I think, you know, at that point in time, the kids are younger, you still have to be present and work hard. And I really needed some time, something that was my own. And the time for me to just think and unplug and I just found that in running. I think it made me a better leader. I think it made me a better father. Now, I was running at 5:00 in the morning, you know, so be it. It was mine.
Eric: Do you currently use Strava right now?
Eric: No. Okay. That's the GPS tracking. It's like social media platform. Yeah. Yeah. It's a whole thing.
Jim: Yeah. I need to ask my son if he does, he's getting ready to run. My older son got into running too, still does. And there's a Denver marathon this weekend, so. And he's not much, but he's a little more technological savvy than I am, so.
Matt: Well, yeah, you should ask him about Strava. It's cool.
Jim: I will do that.
Matt: Okay. Well, you pretty much described exactly the situation that Eric and I are in right now, where it's, like, young families. And if you can get up, if you can justify that 5:00 AM is your own time, you're willing to do it because it's, like, man, it carves out this own little time of yours and you can just go do your thing, and then you can prepare you to be ready for everything else. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. It's really hard to be selfish in a family environment. And the way I'm driven is, you know, I can't have it impact anybody else otherwise that meets my definition of selfish which I think is a little extreme, but that's kind of where it ended up. And after a while, it becomes more of a habit than anything else.
Matt: Yeah. It's kinda hard to get home at the end of the day after working all day long, your kids see you for the first time and then you go, "Sorry. I'm going out for an hour and a half run," you know, that just doesn't go on very well.
Jim: Well, and the other popular one I'm sure with you guys too, is golf, right? And to be...you know, to have our type of jobs and then take up the five hours on a Saturday, away is, I didn't wanna do it, and guarantee you, my wife didn't want me to do it.
Eric: Yeah. Let's go back and talk about your idea of selfishness. So, you have this... I feel like this is one of... I mean, this is like a driving principle, right? Like how you spend your time is incredibly important. So, you view your time at service to others, is that part of your leadership style and part of the value of the company?
Jim: Absolutely, it is. I think it's subservient leadership service to others is... I think when you take over a leadership position, there are certain traits or attributes you have stronger than others. And I believe that was always one of my traits. I think there's other ones you can work on and enhance. But for the most part, you've gotta define your leadership style. And I think that was at the core of me is working for others, helping others and not being the "me" guy where everything was about me. So, I think as time went on that got more refined and more honed that absolutely I view that as one of the trademarks of...if I had a leadership style that I'm sure that would get listed in there.
Eric: What do you think in your life caused that to be part of your core?
Jim: It's was a great question. You often hear, you know, the world is basically made up of givers and takers. And I think I probably had some bad experiences with takers that I just said, you know, in the back of my mind, "I don't wanna be that guy." And that that lesson kind of drives you to, "Okay. How do I not be that guy," you know, moves you over into the giver category. And the fulfillment you get out of helping others or giving back, I find really rewarding and kind of completes a lot of other pieces of my life that I've got going.
Matt: So, you're a young man out on a job, you're a project manager, and your leadership style is service over being the person who stands out, or the person who takes all the glory. So, how does somebody who has that gift well, maybe gets pushed aside, how do they, like, show their bosses that what they're actually doing to serving other people and that that's the best form of leadership?
Jim: Yeah. I think that's a great question. You can do that, but you still gotta advance the ball and move it forward. You still gotta show the results, right? How you ended up there, you can deflect and give credit to others, which is great. But somebody truly noticing is gonna notice that you led that effort and those results are really yours. The guy that, you know, walks into the room and says, "I'm in charge," and owns all of it. There is a role and a place for that, but that probably doesn't align real well with our culture. But doesn't mean it's not a acceptable trait at all. But you still can be a nice guy and give a lot of things away, but if you're not getting the results, you're just a nice guy giving stuff away, right?
Matt: Yeah. Right. Right.
Jim: You've still gotta be driven and build that team around you that allows you to accomplish those goals.
Matt: Yup. So, have you done anything with your kids to try to instill a similar mentality in them as they've grown up?
Jim: Yeah. Millennials, right? Yeah. It's all about them. I think I have various... You know, put them through some aptitude-type testing, showing them their strengths and weaknesses. You know, I think they're still both young in their careers that they don't know how to connect all those dots. And the other part is just, you know, leading by example, and I know they see it and take it in. They don't comment as much, but every once in a while one of them will text me or send me, the younger one is a communications major. He sends me notes, which is incredible for their generation. Just, you know, thanking me for what I've done. That means a lot to me, but I also know they're kind of taking stock in that as well.
Eric: Yeah. This is maybe a good time to talk about it. So, you grew up in this very family business, you know, your dad's idea of the firm was, you're all involved and then...but you kind of have shifted your own philosophy about the nature of the firm and the stakeholders. So, can you talk a little bit about that?
Jim: Yeah. Every holiday or growing up, you know, my dad was obviously the patriarch and very visible, and it was all...we all rode the wave of the company. And it was all about his success and leadership at GE Johnson, which is great to grow up. You become all work and not really very multidimensional. So, when I was coming up through the office and the field, you would hear a lot about, you know, "I do all this work, and it's not...I don't own a piece of the rock," or "I don't own any shares, and all my hard work just goes to Gil's kids." And so, you listen. And I, at that time, was going to different seminars, you know, talking about ownership and stock programs and family businesses. And my dad was very focused on having the company succeed him. So, we spent some time with industrial psychologists and those types of people trying to increase basically his wish, not mine, right? That the company succeed him. I hadn't really signed on that I wanted to be the leader at that point. I think there was just one big assumption gap.
And so, in 1997, he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. So, he quickly made me president, and he became chairman of the board. And one of our first meetings, because I'd been to all these great seminars, I said, "Well, I need to see your job description." He goes, "Well, my job description is whatever the hell I see fit here." I go, "Okay. Well, you know, we got some work to do here." So, we ended up writing these job descriptions for ourselves. And, of course, he never thought mine was right, but it also helped set the stage of, you know, moving him to a different position and out of day-to-day. But I really got the benefit over those next three years of aping extremely micromanaged. But at least I'm learning you can do things differently and still be a successfully. He managed the company from labor recap reports. And I looked at him one day, and I said, "I am not gonna read a labor recap report." He goes, "Well, I don't know how you're gonna manage the company." I go, "Well, if those guys can't run labor, you know, we probably have the wrong people here, and plus that stuff's already happened." And so, we had this great dispute, but it began to convince me that I didn't have to mimic his leadership styles to still run the company. So, after he passed away, there was a lot of, obviously, family tensions and emotions run pretty high during your remaining parents' death. I just said, you know, "If I can run the company, I wanna do it with people that they should take part in the success of it. And I don't wanna go a Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas and have my younger sister say, "Why aren't there distributions?" or my older brother's saying, "I want my stock out." I'd rather just keep family family and let me go see if I can run the business and I'll reward, award the people that really contribute to its value. I think for me it was the right decision. I think I had absolutely my hands full running the business and really didn't have the strength nor really the skill set to be the family patriarch as well. I just think juggling knows was very hard. So, I bought out all my siblings after my siblings, my two boys, my brother's two boys, you know, anybody whose last name was Johnson, I bought out.
The piece that I did not appreciate was my older sister. She goes, you know, "For me, it wasn't about the economic value. It was a sentimental value and attachment to you and dad." And I don't think I put any value on that and because I just... I probably should have. You know, my brother, you know, for example, said, you know, "Give me the cash, I'm out." I mean, he had a economic value attached to it. So, I think it's pretty hard because that way I could manage the company like I felt like we needed to, we are in a position where I wanted to grow it, and I knew we needed to retain earnings and if my family had gotten used to distributions, there was going to be some tough conversations. Now, that was just one way to take that off the table.
Eric: Those are always tricky situations. And yeah, I appreciate your perspective on that. Okay. So, you wanted to grow this thing, you felt like that was the best way to set it up for growth. How then were the next couple of steps for growth?
Jim: Oh, God, they were awful. You have no idea. You know, I mean, if 200 million is good, you know, 300 is gotta be, you know, like, half as time as good, right? Right. So, first of all, I inherited my dad's team, which was really not the support team I needed. His leadership styles, and I mean, he was all roads led through him. I mean, he was still making investments. He was, you know, making major operational calls. He was deciding what work we'd go after or not. And I knew that I wasn't smart enough to do all of those, but the people that he saw had surrounded himself with were more of foot soldiers. They needed somebody to tell them what to do. And I would come in and say, you know, "If you guys are looking for me for the answer, I don't have it." That scared a bunch of them. What I meant to say is, "We're gonna develop that answer together. So, we all agree." It was for the best interest for the company. And, you know, we are, at that point in time I was 39. Everybody's older than I am and so it's kind of hard. You've gotta keep the operation up and going, but you've also gotta convince those people that they're part of a management team, which they misinterpret, "Okay. He's weak, I'll just run the business." So, there was a lot of upper management changeover that would happen over the next few years. And quite frankly, we outgrew the capacity of a few of... You know, my dad didn't have a degree in human resources. We had no human resource department. I mean it was you take your best estimator, make him the chief estimator. And your best estimator may or may not know how to manage people, grow people, and develop a team around him. So, really had to step back and put in a lot of those dominoes of redefinition of the characteristics, the traits that we were looking for.
And meanwhile, the car's driving. So, you really gotta change the tires, and the oil, and windshield washing fluid, whatever car's on the highway. It takes a lot of work. As I sit here today, I think I've got the best team around me that I've ever had, but it takes a lot of confidence that this system will work. There's going to be ample opportunities for me as the other management team members, and I'm okay if I don't make it to president someday. Because now I'm 58, you know, so that opportunity is there, but when I was 45 interviewing somebody that was older than me, and I say, "Well, I wanna be president," they are going, "Well, that may not happen," right? We had one of those.
Matt: Yeah. There's only so many...right. There's only so many things you can give people as a carrot. And if what they want is your job, then you're sitting there going, "Huh."
Jim: Yeah. So, yeah, I mean part of it was age, and part of it was, you know, I'm sure, driven by my insecurity of, "Oh gosh. He could be better," you know, and, "then what do I do?" Right?
Eric: Yeah. What you described there, when you were 39, you inherit your father's management team, but you're like, "This is not my team." This sounds incredibly stressful to me. You obviously have interpersonal things going on with these people involved. There's financial things going on, big change in your life, and you're all, you know, in your late thirties. So, can you describe a story of how difficult that was and how did you begin to justify some of the interpersonal things with the right thing for the company? How did you balance those?
Jim: Yeah. I look back now, and kind of shake my head and I'm, "My dad died. I took over as president of the company, became the major shareholder and got remarried all in a 60 day period? Wow." Yeah. It's a few life changes going on. But yeah, I don't know how I did. I think I'm, you know, still young enough. I think the interpersonal side, I decided to really simplify and just to not overanalyze and overthink things. I think at first, the common belief is, "Yes, that person is not perfect, but I can get them there." And you've gotta get your own definition and kind of grading scale on loyalty and performance, you know, but by instituting some more professional people management type things, whether they're as simple as 360-degree feedbacks or, you know, some other that outside consultants would help utilize, educating and learning yourself from there saying, "Okay. This isn't a good fit." Now, that may lead to a very difficult discussion or, you know, "We've gotta manage, we've gotta move this person over here."
So, I think it was a learning to listen to some of the outside resources that were there and didn't have that insight vested. I had, you know, mistitle, but he was a CFO here. He would come in and, you know, complain about my compensation because I owned more stock and I would get more money, and I would sit there and apologize, and you know, "There's nothing I can do. If we're given a buck a share and I have more shares than everybody else, I don't know how else I can do this." And then they would all walk out. Then he would come back in and negotiate his own deal. And I just kinda sat there, and I go, "Wait a minute. That is not what I'm looking for." I want people that, it's the company first themselves second, you know. Who can I convince we're gonna do this "get rich slow scheme" is what we call it. And we've had great success, right? But you need more partners than you do people that wanna build their own, you know, "I want operations to be stronger than the preconstruction group." And you've got to have people that can look at the whole perspective, in my company. I don't believe that's the case everywhere. That can really work across those different... The executive should be able to work across different departmental lines, and help them, and support them, and realize we're stronger together. You can have the world's best operations team, but if you don't have a good estimating a business development function, that doesn't mean much.
Matt: So, it sounds like you forged the path of new HR. You know, you were big on HR at that point in time in your career. What's your current HR strategy with millennials?
Jim: Yeah. Millennials are great. I actually, I went to AGC class in, I think it was '94, and I came back and said, I told my dad, "I've got this vision for human resources that is, like, way different than everybody else has got this setup." I view them as not a compliance department, you know. Yes, they've gotta do that. And we did not have any full-time HR people until I became president. They've gotta have a seat at the table where we have a lot of people. We need to really make sure we're doing the best we can with benefits, and with recruiting, and development. Yes, there's the compliance side. So, I elevated HR's importance, at least in our upper management.
Millennials, I think we're still getting a lot of data. I mean, what we get is a little bit conflicting, you know, as far as some of their wants and needs. We've shortened some of our training, putting it on different medias. There is a quest for information, but we're trying to connect that dot between information and experience. Just because you've read on how to read a biopharmaceutical building doesn't mean that I should let you go do that. Yeah. We've modified some of our benefits to what we believe are more attracted to them. We're doing some things with student loan debts. But, you know, we're not gonna turn it upside down. Keep in mind, we're in Colorado, so, you know, we recruit from primarily Midwestern states because that's generally our philosophy as people tend to go to college more or less where they view themselves living. So, we kind of stay off both coasts, which I believe are always more leading-edge as far as trends and things there in the middle part of the United States. So, we've got that going for us a little bit, but we're continuing to learn, get data, and make the adjustments where we can. And technology is a piece of that too as well. I mean, making sure we're staying current on all the technology, things that we can do that enhances our construction process.
Eric: We're based at Illinois. People are leaving Illinois to go to Colorado all the time. So, it does seem like you have an influx of people to hire.
Jim: I thought last year, they were averaging about 10,000 people a month, move into the state, net immigration. So, yeah.
Matt: Can you tell us about some of the most exciting projects you've done in your career?
Jim: You know, it's kind of funny, the cover. We did a book for our 50th year, which was a lot of fun because it really makes you take a lot of history and a lot of stories and reduce them down to some common themes, which was tremendously fun. But when it came down to picking... And we've built some beautiful buildings. When it came down to picking the cover of that book, we picked absolutely, by leaps and bounds, the worst financial performing job we've ever had. As I tell the surety, I don't think they saw it as great business. We lost the entire equity of the company while double again over a three year period. It's Northstar Village in Lake Tahoe, California. A very high-end mountain resort development, hotel, condominiums, public spaces with ice rinks, parking structures, retail, all the way in about $300 million.
If there's 10 things that will bankrupt the contractor, you know, we did eight of them on that job, and it was absolutely the most miserable experience for our job team. Everything that could go wrong did. But we kept our commitment to the owner on delivery dates and completions, and it cost us, financially, a tremendous amount of money. And I don't think that I could be more proud of what our company accomplished out there because we stood by our values. The weather came after us. The design came after us, regulations, subcontractors. The owner had a very unfortunate change in their personnel that changed the dynamics in the relationship. I mean, it was not a healthy work environment, and our people kept to their values, kept to their commitments, and delivered kind of in the face of that storm, so to speak. And to me, that really solidified GE Johnson's values, our presence, and our commitment. I wished we wouldn't have had to pay that much for that opportunity. But to me it said, you know, "That's what you get with us." And so, we talk a little bit about that in the book and on the back cover, and half the people just look at me and shake their head, but to me, that's really typifies who we are.
Eric: Having employees own shares in... A lot of times, people think about it as, "Oh well, they're participating in the upside." But I guess the flip side of that is also true where when something bad is going on, they're participating in the bad side. Is that the case? Is that... Do you get to hear it from people, "Hey, what are we doing doing that?"
Jim: Yeah. I mean, I think they have. We've been as high as 72 shareholders. We're currently around 50. Just had some people retire. I think our management teams over the past, have earned the trust of them that, you know, they know that we're doing the best we can. They may not like that outcome, but I think we've done a good enough job communicating when we run into a problem, what we're doing and yes, we all would like to make more money, but, you know, this is our business. This is what we do. There's risk associated with it. Sometimes things don't go as planned. I think most of them figured, you know, "If you guys are up willing to do that and, you know, have at it," but not many second-guessing. Not many of it that makes it to my level at least.
Matt: Sounds like a good situation. All right. We got a handful of kinda shorter, quicker questions.
Jim: Yeah. I saw these. Like, these are a hoot, right?
Eric: What time do you wake up every morning?
Jim: 4:00 a.m.
Matt: Wow. So, how many hours of sleep do you get every night?
Jim: I'm asleep by 9:00 p.m. So, it's seven hours.
Matt: Okay. Okay. That's good. What's the best book you've ever read?
Jim: I use reading for relaxing. So, it's usually a John Grisham-type novel that moves pretty quick and has, you know, eventually a good guy that gets harmed along the way. That's kind of the crime law part of it.
Eric: Yeah. What running shoes are you running in these days?
Jim: Today I had to move over to Brooks Ghosts. So, spent a lot of years in Asics but your feet will change.
Eric: So, what Asics model were you in?
Jim: I was at the 726. I think it was one of those. It had a name, but I cannot remember it. I went through like three or four reinventions of that model.
Matt: Yeah. Right. They would just keep sequentially numbering them.
Jim: Yeah. That's exactly right.
Matt: But you stayed in the same ones. Okay. What's your best trail to run in Colorado?
Jim: You know, ironically, my favorite run, we have a house in East Vail, and they have a bike path, which used to be the old Vail pass. It's about, from my house, it's about a 10 mile up. Then you run into the summit of the Vail pass. That is absolutely my favorite run.
Eric: Wow. So, you run 10 miles there. And then you turn around and run back, or someone pick you up?
Jim: Yeah. It's kind of funny. My wife, I would race her on her bike which shows you that we're not the smartest couple ever assembled. And then I would get on her seat, and she would give me a ride down. And we changed that after a few years and now we leave a bike up there and I ride down.
Matt: There you go. That's a good way to do it. How about a favorite quote? Do you have a favorite quote that you always repeat to people?
Jim: You know, I think there's a lot of good cliches. And I think they're cliches because I think a lot of them are very true, right. You know, "Keep it simple and stupid," you know, I mean, I think is an awesome one. You know, "Work as a four-letter word," "You get what you earn," "You get to sell your integrity once." You know, "It's a long race," "Treat others as you wish to get treated yourself." I mean, it's kind of some of the simpler ones that really, I think, resonate, and if... I mean one of the best leadership books I read, I read it because it was short, it didn't give me a headache is, you know, "Really All I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten." "Leave things better than you found them." "Don't hit people." Some of those simple ones I think are very relevant, and we try to overcomplicate from time to time.
Eric: How about, what's your favorite restaurant out there in Colorado?
Jim: You know, we have a couple of really good and probably a shoo-in for a good steak house. We have a Del Frisco's, Elway's, not only his name, but they actually have very good steak. So, it seems to be the steakhouse with the sides of whatever they're doing with potatoes that week or, you know, mushrooms kind of seems to be our go-to meal.
Eric: How about favorite movie that you've seen in the last year?
Jim: Gosh, we're down on movies. Just haven't seen any. I think what you look for in movies at age 58 is different. I watched "The Mule," Clint Eastwood's movie, and I just found myself thinking about the whole time, but his mental condition was. So, I actually enjoyed it. I think it's kind of a odd movie. Same with "Bohemian Rhapsody" of Queen. I grew up in that area. I knew none of the story, but as I watched it, the amount of talent that Freddie Mercury had and just what a train wreck he was, while not a surprise, I found entertaining, right? I usually go for truly entertainment value, not to learn a whole bunch.
Matt: Yeah. Right. So, you know, you talked about your dad's desire for a succession plan. Is that something you've put much thought around for yourself or is that coming down the road or..?
Jim: Yeah. We spent a lot of time and right in the middle of our succession plan. And you've gotta break it into two pieces. There's a financial succession plan, there's a management succession plan. My goal is to build a sustainable company that does not mean that it's led by a Johnson whether you built the infrastructure and an organization that allows it to continue the next 50 years. We spent a lot of time, very purposeful effort, both on the financial success of the company and transition as well as the management side.
Eric: Is there an area that you didn't think we hit that you want to hit?
Jim: No. I think construction is... I think it's just a wonderful industry and full of rewards and there are so many opportunities. I mean, we cover such a small portion of the overall market and tremendous amount of respect for the, you know, the guys that are in other different markets. But it is still one of the industries where you can start with very little and really be in control of your own career and get to really shape not only your own business but you know, hopefully, the communities in which you work. I had an opportunity to sell our company after my dad's death, and I would've been fine financially, but really came back to said, you know, "I'm not done." And I really don't know what else I would do. I really love this industry. It's been very rewarding. It's been very challenging, have a lot of gray hair because of it, but I cannot imagine a more fulfilling career.
Matt: Looking forward, what excites you most about the construction industry in the next 20 years?
Jim: I think we're still messing around, we as an industry with, you know, where prefabrication is gonna play a role, and the technology aspects. I don't think I'll see robotics building buildings, might know they're doing some in China. But I think it's just how we continue to try to deliver product more efficiently for our clients. Whether that's cheaper, faster, our industry is still learning, and technology is really starting to play a role in our industry. Well, they forgot about us for a lot of years. They gave us accounting software and said, "Those construction guys are too odd." What now it's really starting to all-on assault. So, I think that it's exciting and will change the landscape a little bit. So, I'm excited to see where that goes.
Eric: Do you have any initiatives as a company to look into kind of those new ways of doing things? Or do you kind of rely on a lot of vendors to bring in and present? Or what's... How do you learn about new things? How do you try that new stuff?
Jim: Well, I think you've gotta cuddles up and actually a pretty good market. There's a lot of negotiated work, so we have a lot of the national offices here where people are pushing us which I think is great because it makes everybody's knife sharper, so to speak. So, we not only, you know, we'll hit the national workshops and try to pick up on those trends, but also we're not afraid to allocate some money. You know, we set up a prefabrication facility. We had zero backorders, right? We're still at a size where, "We know this is coming. We better get into the game for ourselves." So, I like that flexibility we have. So, yes, and you know, we will say, "On these two jobs, we're gonna make sure we prefabricate at least something." You know, that's kind of how we force, those are our initiatives or how we get it started.