May 21, 2009

John McGowan

John McGowan

Company: J.R. Abbott Construction

Position: President and CEO


John McGowan joined J.R. Abbott Construction as an estimator in 1988. Now president and CEO, he jokes that he’s climbed to top of the company ladder as a result of attrition.

Abbott, which was founded in 1983, specializes in private-sector and nonprofit work such as churches, retail, tenant improvements and health care.

Its work at Navos, a West Seattle mental health inpatient center, earned the company an AGC award for tenant-improvement projects under $5 million.

McGowan says people who are successful in construction are those that truly love it.

“They love building stuff, and they love the process, and they love working with the people, and love the challenge and they love the fact that you’ve got be creative.”

So after 21 years at Abbott, McGowan says he’s been “just continually trying to do my job, and I ended up doing this job.”

How do tenants’ needs figure into your project plans?

We do a lot of occupied renovations because we work in health care and retail, and neither one of those kind of businesses want to shut down while they’re being remodeled. You need to operate inside that space as if you’re one of them. It’s one of the first things we ask ourselves: How are our activities going to affect either your customers or your patients, and how can we manage our operations to accommodate that?

How does that affect your scheduling?

It doesn’t drastically affect scheduling because it’s all in the planning. You go into this thing planning for the unexpected, so you build that into your schedule. Things do come up and you just have to adjust. In the case of health care, if we’re doing something that’s disturbing a patient, you just stop until you can figure out a way so it’s not disturbing.

How did you end up in construction?

I wanted to be an architect, went to school to be an architect, but then realized I was a lousy designer. And so that kind of put the brakes on being an architect, but in the process I did like the technical part of building a building and just got drawn into doing construction.

How is the recession affecting people new to the industry?

A lot of people are learning just how difficult it is to get a job and how difficult it is to keep your own job. You can’t just show up every day. If you want to be employed in these times, you better be contributing.

What’s the next innovation in construction?

Owners seem to be reliant on general contractors more and more as the lead. And so I think you’re going to see more design-build type projects coming on board. I think you’re going to see more collaborative-type contracting occurring.

What’s one thing you would change about the industry?

I would change people’s perception that the first price is always the best price because I think that usually doesn’t bear itself out. You keep going to bid on something, and you’ll find someone dumb enough to do it for less, but it doesn’t mean (the owner) is going to get the same product or even what they want.

Any advice for a young person?

They had better love doing this a lot because it is hard. If they don’t love it, the industry will eat them up.

What’s your dream project?

A major hospital here in Seattle. When we got into health care, we were just the little guys. All we did was really, really small work, (but) we worked our way into doing larger work.

We’ve completed an $80 million acute care hospital in L.A. a couple years ago. And so we’re kind of climbing the ladder of our abilities to do some of the larger acute care projects. Building a major hospital here in Seattle would just be the culmination of that ladder.

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