From a young age, Jim Johnson knew that he would spend his life in the construction business. He was born into a long line of contractors, and at the age of 15, his father — GE Johnson Construction Company founder Gilbert Johnson — began grooming him to one day take over the family business. That transition was completed in 1997, when Jim Johnson became president and CEO of the Colorado Springs-based firm. Johnson recently spoke to the Business Journal about his father’s legacy, his nearly 20 years of leadership and how GE Johnson has changed throughout its 50-year history.
Are you from Colorado Springs?
For the most part, I grew up in Colorado Springs. My family moved here in the early ’60s, but I was actually born in Wichita, Kansas. My father was working for another contracting firm when he was transferred out here. When he was asked to move again, he decided to start his own contracting business [50 years ago]. So I do consider Colorado Springs home. I grew up here and went away for college at Kansas State University. … I came back to Colorado Springs for good in 1986. Since the age of 15, my only job has been construction — that is what has always paid the bills.
Did you always think you’d follow in your father’s footsteps?
I think everyone wants to be proud of their father. For me, as a kid, that was me driving by buildings, pointing and saying, ‘My dad built that.’ It was my immediate identity. … I think I got hooked when I was 15. For me, seeing the impact he made and what the process was like was addicting. … So yes, this has been my only occupation — I’m not sure if I picked it or it picked me.
When did you take over for your father?
I took over in January of 1997. We worked side-by-side until he passed in August of 2000. Those were three years I would not trade for anything. He had been diagnosed as terminally ill and had a true desire to see the company succeed him in death. … It was an opportunity to know him not only as a father, but also as a successful businessman. I wouldn’t trade those three years for anything.
What do you think he would say about where things have gone since then?
I really don’t know. … We come from a long line of contractors, and the company had always died when the founder died. I think my father’s vision was to have the company succeed him … so I think he would be pleased that we’re still here and that the values that have always been a part of the business still exist today. … So my assumption is that he would be proud.
What have been your challenges?
The pace at which business happens these days is so much quicker than it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. … The amount of new technology that has been introduced to our industry over the past several years has been huge, and I think that keeping up with that has been a real challenge. We took the company non-union in 2010, and I think that history will show that was a pretty monumental effort.
How many kids do you have and are any of them interested in taking over the family business?
I have two of my own and I have two step-kids. My oldest son Jared works for the company. He took a very similar path [to] the one I did: He worked for us in high school and college, did an internship and then went to work for a contractor in Phoenix for three years before coming back to work for us about a year ago. He’s the project manager on a hotel we’re working on in Denver. It’s very different. Back in 1986, when I came to work here, my father and I worked in the same small office building. I don’t really interact much with Jared at all on the business side.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
You never stop learning: If you think you have, and you think you know everything, you’re probably in a lot of trouble — you just don’t know it. We learn here every day, myself included. People think the CEO should be all-knowing, but there are things that I definitely don’t know and I’m not afraid to call up someone and ask.
How have you failed and what have you learned from it?
I think I’ve failed a lot. I’ve learned that it’s OK to fail, and that it is what you learn from those experiences that holds value. I’m not afraid to try and fail. There is an inherent risk in our business, so you’ve got to be willing to take risks — which means you have to be willing to fail.
What’s something about you that might surprise people?
I think the possibility of total failure scares the hell out of me. I think I’m driven by a will to succeed that is ultimately motivated by the fear of failure. … I’ve been to the North and South poles. My wife and I are empty-nesters, so we have a couple of Colorado homes — we have a ranch near Westcliffe and a house right outside of Vail — where we like to spend time. I used to run a ton and ran in 20 marathons. … We used to do a lot more international travel, but we’ve scaled back on that because we’ve been to most of the places we wanted to go.