The San Francisco Business Times’ “Best Places to Work” list is comprised of companies that uphold a people-centered culture and understand how it can have a positive impact on employees and clients alike. We asked Jon-Michael Johnson, founder & CFO of Principal Builders, a few questions about his background in the construction industry and some of his philosophies that helped Principal Builders earn a place on the list.

Want to learn more about building a people-based practice? Join us for a panel discussion, moderated by our founder, William Duff, at AIA San Francisco on February 26 where Mr. Johnson and other construction industry leaders will share their insights.


Why did you choose to co-found a construction business? 

Having worked for several large contractors, I became frustrated with how they managed their employees.  They seemed to be bottom line driven and cared about growth.  Due to their size, they implemented “controls” to minimize losses.  As a result, they became less employee-focused.  I wanted to start a construction company that put people first – employees, partners and customers.  Every decision needs to consider people first.  This affects how we treat our people and how we interact with our partners and our customers.

What takeaways from scuba diving and free diving do you apply to your work?

When scuba diving, a mistake can be life threatening.  It is critical to be honest about your abilities and admit when you don’t understand something or if you need help.  Pride doesn’t help at 100 feet below the surface.  This same attitude is effective at work, be realistic about your abilities and operate within your skill set.  You can venture beyond your comfort zone, but be sure to have a “buddy” that has your back.

Who do you admire, and why?

Marcus Lemonis, the host of the reality show “The Profit.”  He is a smart business person, but understands that people come first in a successful business.  He is also a very direct communicator that has a great way of compassionately calling people out on their bad management practices.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from an employee?

Being right is not always the best way to resolve an issue.  Developing trust is much more important.  If you don’t agree with someone, it might be worth letting them be right so that you can develop trust.

What’s a misconception about the construction industry that you’d like to address?

The misconception that most, if not all, contractors look to enhance profit with change orders.  I do not like change orders.  I prefer that we anticipate that there will be changes and then allocate allowances for them.  When changes do happen, I prefer that we address them in a manner that simply covers the costs associated with the change and that we don’t look at it as an opportunity to overcharge.

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