Peek inside a GE Johnson construction site and you’ll see workers wearing hard hats in blue, white and green. But mainly you’ll see them in gray—the color awarded to people who have worked for the company for at least five years. You will also see shiny white stickers that denote the number of years of employment. It’s not uncommon for them to reach into the high 20s and 30s.
So it is with an employee-owned general contractor known for loyalty among both its employees and its clients. (Various GE Johnson officials estimate that 85% to 90% of the firm’s business comes from repeat clients.) Mario Elliott, a career-long employee who runs GE Johnson’s equipment division, may be typical. He started with the company as a summer laborer when he was a teenager and rose to his present position during a 36-year span.
“It’s rare to find someone who isn’t incredibly proud to work here,” Elliott says, adding that even retirees still refer to the company “as ‘us’ and not ‘they.’” He says the company’s promote-from-within culture is “amazing” and points to two sources: CEO Jim Johnson and his father, Gil Johnson, who founded the firm in 1967.
“It started with Gil Johnson, setting the GE Johnson culture to be an honorable person, not just to your projects but also to the community,” Elliott says. “Jim Johnson kept that culture when Gil passed away (in 2000) and never skipped a beat …. We’re treated not as numbers, but as people.”
As evidence, Elliott notes that Jim Johnson, who has worked for the company for most of his career, knows the names of just about every mechanic in the GE Johnson equipment and training facility, located 10 miles from the firm’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. The firm also has offices in Denver and Vail, Colo.; Casper and Jackson, Wyo.; and Oklahoma City.
For his part, Johnson says, “I enjoy people. Everybody plays a vital role here. Just because I have a different title makes me no more important or of greater value to the company than a laborer or a truck driver, and I want them to feel that way.
“And hopefully that translates into loyalty and they understand that it’s not just a job. You can work anywhere, but I just want you to know that somebody here cares about you, somebody here knows your name, and hopefully that empowers you to do your job better,” he says.
Doing the job has been a Johnson family tradition for decades. Even before Gil Johnson founded the company 50 years ago, his father and uncle owned Johnson Brothers Building in Salina, Kan. In tracing the family’s construction history for GE Johnson’s 50th anniversary celebration this summer, Jim Johnson discovered the lineage extends to his own great-grandfather and that his 28-year-old son, Jared, who also works for the company, represents the sixth generation of Johnsons to wield a hammer.
GE Johnson began as a family firm and stayed that way until 2002. Following Gil Johnson’s death, Jim made the contractor a wholly employee-owned company. Along with a subsidiary, H.W. Houston Construction of Pueblo, Colo., and a joint venture, Schmueser Associates Inc., in the town of Rifle, Colo., GE Johnson Construction is now part of a larger firm known as GE Johnson Holding Co.
Whatever its structure and ownership, the firm has been marked by consistent growth. GE Johnson now numbers nearly 700 employees and operates throughout much of the Western and Midwestern U.S. It ranks fourth on ENR Mountain States’ current list of contractors in Colorado and Wyoming, with regional 2016 revenue of $447.4 million.
The firm also is known for its diverse, high-profile work in vertical building. Just underway is the U.S. Olympic Museum, an avant-garde structure in Colorado Springs that will house artifacts and interactive exhibits from both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Also under construction, in Frederick, Colo., is a new pharmaceutical manufacturing facility for Agilent. Going up in Denver is The Quincy, a 28-story, residential and retail project for Shea Properties that will be the tallest building GE Johnson has ever built.
Other current endeavors include The Coloradan, a 19-story condominium and retail project in Denver; an expansion and renovation of UCHealth Memorial Hospital North in Colorado Springs; a concurrent project on the same campus in Colorado Springs to build Children’s Hospital Colorado; and The Village, which adds residences and amenities to Yellowstone Club, a private resort in Big Sky, Mont.
One project, completed three-and-a-half years ago, still causes GE Johnson’s workers to reminisce. The company undertook a complete renovation of Colorado Springs’ renowned Broadmoor Hotel, with a hard completion deadline of 27 weeks. Anticipating an on-time finish, the hotel’s management sold out its rooms for a convention set for the day after scheduled completion.
“There was no room for not being successful,” recalls Tim Redfern, senior superintendent. GE Johnson started removing furniture as guests were still checking out on Halloween 2013 and began a six-month marathon of 24-hour shifts. In the end, the hotel was put back together and ready to receive guests two days before the big convention in May 2014.
Such projects require intensive collaboration, and Redfern, a 31-year veteran of the company, points to GE Johnson’s use of technology as a critical driver. Powered largely by software from Autodesk and Navis, integrated work plans guide construction from start to finish, even performing computations so workers no longer need to calculate the volume of concrete for a job. Redfern calls the integrated work plans, which also sequence plumbing, electrical and other specialty work, a “huge benefit.”
The technology behind it all is the domain of GE Johnson’s integrated services department, which includes the systems integration and preconstruction groups. Led by Steve Eikanger, the department provides a forum for teamwork among GE Johnson employees, project owners, designers and subcontractors. In addition to its heavy use of building information modeling software to render designs and set the batting order for construction, Eikanger’s group even owns four sets of virtual reality goggles; they allow owners and others to take a simulated 3D walk-through of renderings via the big screen in the company conference room.
Eikanger says subcontractors, in particular, appreciate the reliability provided by GE Johnson’s technical tools. “We use a lot of subcontractors, and we use a lot of people over and over on projects,” Eikanger says. “And what I hear from them is, ‘The way you use technology, the way you help us coordinate our projects, makes us more efficient when we’re out there doing work, and that’s why we want to work for you.’”
GE Johnson’s efficient use of subcontractors captured the attention of Dan Robbins, facilities manager for Agilent in Colorado. He is overseeing construction of his company’s 132,000-sq-ft plant on a 20-acre campus in Frederick, 15 miles north of Denver. Robbins also gives high marks to GE Johnson’s preconstruction services and safety experts on the job. Agilent selected GE Johnson from among four competing firms, and Robbins says, “We certainly made the right choice.”
Shea Properties, meanwhile, has been using GE Johnson for more than 20 years. Peter Culshaw, executive vice president at Shea, describes The Quincy, GE Johnson’s current Shea Properties’ project, as “very exciting,” and says his company “couldn’t be happier” with the long relationship.
Back in Colorado Springs, Johnson believes that collaboration, both with clients and industry trade partners, is where the contracting industry is headed.
“It’s going to take teams, not one member of a team,” Johnson says. “But I think we’re very well positioned for that, because that’s how we try to approach everything. We’re more of a team member. We want to be more than just a contractor.”