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Relationships help 50-year-old Colorado Springs construction firm thrive

December 2, 2017 Updated: January 15, 2018 at 4:35 pm
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Work continues last month on the U.S. Olympic Museum in southwest downtown Colorado Springs. GE Johnson is the general contractor on the project. Photo by Bill Radford, The Gazette

GE Johnson Construction Co. opened for business on Jan. 3, 1967; its first job, according to a history written to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary this year, came when the general manager of the Antlers Hotel called to have a screen door replaced that had been lost in a windstorm on New Year's Day.

But small projects - the construction of second-floor partitions for a bank, a caddie shack for The Broadmoor - led to long-lived relationships and bigger and bigger projects.

And today, GE Johnson is Colorado Springs' largest locally owned and operated commercial builder and one of the biggest in the Rocky Mountain region.

GE Johnson has always been a family business; founder Gil Johnson served as president and treasurer at the start, and wife Janet was vice president and secretary. Son Jim Johnson stepped in as president in 1997, three years before his father's death, and now guides the strategic vision for the company as CEO of GE Johnson Holding Co.

The company's impact in the area has been immense; name just about any high-profile project in Colorado Springs and GE Johnson has been involved. It is entrusted with two transformative projects - the U.S. Olympic Museum on downtown's southwest side and the Pikes Peak Summit Complex.

The Gazette recently met with Jim Johnson in GE Johnson's downtown offices to discuss a half-century in business - and where the company goes from here.

What were some of the early growth areas for the company?

Schools can be an entry point for contractors, and so we, like many other contractors, cut our teeth on schools; we still have a very strong K-12 resume today.

The rest of it, I think, grew a little bit as Colorado grew, whether it was office buildings in Denver or manufacturing here in Colorado Springs, with all of the advanced technology that was here. Then some relationships, like with The Broadmoor, they really began to define who we were.

Back in the '90s, and I happen to remember this meeting, my dad said, these hospitals are going for 100 bucks a foot and schools are $35 a foot, we should get into that hospital area. And today health care is our strongest niche. I think at the time we thought it was more revenue based, but it's really a technical expertise that helps us today.

Even early on, you weren't confined to Colorado Springs, and since then you haven't even been confined to Colorado; you've had projects as far away as Michigan. How does the company decide what projects to chase, especially when they're that far away?

A lot of times, we're following a relationship.

That one in Michigan, for example, was we had done a hospital, a rather complicated project, up in Jackson, Wyo. That hospital administrator left, and he went to Greenville, Mich., and they had a project, and he said, I want these guys to do it. So it's usually relationships.

Before, probably 10 years ago, we would hand off clients. If you have a project in Houston or Los Angeles, let us hook you up with somebody. We now try more to follow them. That's how we got a hospital job in Kansas City, a large job in Montana; that's relationships. We'll not travel everywhere, but as long as we know the client, we're willing to hear them out.

What have been some of the more difficult times for the company? A history of the company (available at https://gejohnson.com) says your dad was seriously concerned about its future during a downturn in the 1980s.

He would say things at that time like, if we don't get that job, I guess we'll close the doors. How close to reality was that? I don't know, but the message got heard. I don't think he ever really considered that.

For my tenure, it was probably the recession; commercial contractors, we got hit pretty hard.

For me, the hardest part was you had a series of unprecedented events in the financial markets and I couldn't figure how that was going to affect us. We had a meeting, we decided we are going to stay who we are. We're not going to do it on the backs of employees, we're not asking them to take a cut, we're not doing away with fringe benefits. It was very hard because I couldn't offer comfort to our employees and say it's all going to be fine, we've been through this before. At the time, it was pretty strange and pretty challenging.

What have been the most challenging projects that GE Johnson has taken on?

I think it's going to be just down the street; I think it's the Olympic Museum. That is a very complex and complicated project. I love it because it's pushing our technical skills and our people are really engaged, but this is not like building a school in Douglas County. Public projects of that architectural complexity don't have good track records. Most of them end up in lawsuits and claims and overages, and that's not us, so we're really focused on budget containment and schedule.

Prior to that, we did a Class 1 clean room for Digital (Equipment Corp.) when Digital was still around - highly complex, high quality-control protocol. As far as trying to figure out how to get it built, I'll put that up against anything we've done.

What have been some of the most exciting projects to land?

We've been around 50 years, and we are just completing our first project that is 28 stories tall, an apartment building in downtown Denver. For a lot of years, we couldn't get over 14. Everybody will tell you, it's just more floors; yeah, but there's a different level of high rise that comes with that.

For me personally, it was probably the stadium at Kansas State University. That's my alma matter; my dad and I had a long history there. We used some different techniques to meet the project schedule, and nobody thought we could get it done before the opening game. It was a great accomplishment.

What's ahead in the next 50 years for GE Johnson?

More of the same. You look at some of the relationships we've been able to maintain. The Broadmoor isn't going anywhere; we're out there again today working. And Penrose Hospital, health care isn't going to change. I think continuing to elevate our professionalism and quality of service, but we are going to stay in the same markets.

Our sense of community won't change. We're committed to Colorado Springs and making it a better place.

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This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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