Johnson Carlier, Inc.: An American Business Success Story

Johnson Carlier CEO Chris Johnson on site at Bell Lexus in north Scottsdale. A 92-year-old Arizona general contractor, Johnson Carlier is building the new full-service automotive dealership for The Berge Group.
Johnson Carlier CEO Chris Johnson on site at Bell Lexus in north Scottsdale. A 92-year-old Arizona general contractor, Johnson Carlier is building the new full-service automotive dealership for The Berge Group.

By Tim J. Randall

“Taking care of business!” “Getting the job done!” No, this is not Bachman Turner Overdrive redux, but rather the core values and mantra of Johnson Carlier, Inc., a third-generation construction management firm serving the Arizona market since 1921. Sitting down with the CEO Chris Johnson, the narrative of the traditional American business success story is intertwined with the company’s 90-year history.

History: The Foundation

 From the founding of the company as C.O. Johnson- Builders and Constructors, by Chris’s grandfather Mr. C.O. Johnson, a Swedish immigrant; the simple yet always compelling tale of American optimism is present. From Ellis Island to Kansas and ultimately Arizona; Carl Johnson stamped his signature on the fledgling construction company venture at the inchoate of the roaring twenties, steered its course during the tumult of the Depression, grew the operation with his son Lee during the post-war boom years, and solidified the business during the social and political upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s.

History: Chris’s Blueprint

When Chris Johnson speaks to his success and that of the company, it is with a proud and nostalgic nod to what his father and grandfather accomplished. “I like the fact that we are a third-generation company, and all the family history, the stories, my grandfather, my dad- that’s important to me.” It is a history that Chris Johnson experienced through his upbringing and then embraced, joining the company first as “a laborer, then carpenter, then a superintendent, then a project manager, and later promoted to General Manager / Vice President.” In 1979, Chris purchased the company from his father Lee, and then two years later with the impetuosity and temerity of a man in his mid- twenties, struck a bold knockout for the firm with the partnership of Mr. Gene Carlier, a seasoned and Phoenix business stalwart of Sundt Corporation fame.

Acknowledging the impact that his father and grandfather had on the company, Chris can also take great pride in his own record of achievement. From the time he joined the company in 1972 when there were five employees, the firm today employs 40 salaried individuals in the office and field. The success story of Johnson Carlier is in large part due to the partnership of these two driven individuals. Chris Johnson speaks with an almost reverence to Gene Carlier naming him as one of his finest mentors; a list which also includes many of the heavyweights of the Arizona Chapter of Associated General Contractors.

Master Builder: Gene Carlier

The story of their 1981 partnership is one of the classic teacher and student, yet this Senpai-Kohai relationship had a twist, in that Gene Carlier was looking for an ownership opportunity and Chris Johnson provided that chance with a 30 percent stake in the new firm. “His expertise was a thousand times what mine was, so we shook hands and agreed that he would run construction and I would run the business.” Chris points out Gene’s background was in the construction of high-rises and power plants, large-scale projects, while his was in small projects such as banks and schools. The duo knew they had a winning hand when they secured the Medtronics-Microrail deal approximately a year after their venture began; “that was the turning point,” Chris articulates. The connection of the expertise of Gene and the energy and passion of Chris, gave the firm a degree of field- oriented focus which powered the company forward to heights that his grandfather would not have dreamed of.

Nuts and Bolts

Johnson Carlier is the oldest Arizona-founded general contractor, and is recognized as a who’s who of building contractors; ranked 16th in the most recent Phoenix Business Journal Book of Lists for 2013, and 7th for top Mid-Size Construction Companies in the Ranking Arizona lists. From a revenue perspective, the firm conducted $76.4 million dollars in billable transactions in 2012. The company works in three main service platforms: preconstruction, construction, and sustainability-LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Businesses looking at Johnson Carlier can seek expertise in: “construction management, general contracting, construction manager at risk and design/build services, experience in healthcare, education, industrial, commercial, automotive, recreational/clubhouse, high tech, religious and luxury homes.”

The firm has worked with some of the biggest names in Arizona: The Berge Group and Freeport- McMoRan as examples. Driving around the Valley the firm’s craftsmanship can be espied at sites such as: Bell Lexus- N. Scottsdale, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Fed Ex Hub expansion in Phoenix. Johnson Carlier prides itself on its dedication to its customers, quality of service, integrity in their operations, and their impact and role in the communities which they serve.

Finished Product

“I love building, I gravitate toward it, it is my passion,” says Chris Johnson. As Arizona’s construction industry continues its climb toward sustainable recovery, Johnson Carlier will continue to do what it has done for decades; work harder, smarter, and with passion that makes them uniquely competitive. Their focus on relationships, quality, and service continues the theme that C.O. and Lee Johnson developed over their lifetimes. Unquestionably the tenets of Johnson Carlier are imbedded in the story of the American work ethic, and you can bet that Chris Johnson and the employees at his firm will be “taking care of business and working overtime.”

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