M.A. Mortenson Co. CEO Dan Johnson recalls flying to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s to meet a prospective customer at the Watergate Hotel regarding a wind-energy project, then a risky new venture for the Golden Valley-based construction company.
“I kept waiting for us to go into the conference room and really finally realized that there was no conference room,” Johnson said. “They couldn’t afford a conference room and we were in fact going to have our meeting in the lobby of this hotel.”
Placing a bet on what he and others at the time called the “lunatic-fringe business,” however, has paid off well for Mortenson, by far the country’s largest wind-energy contractor, according to 2015 rankings, the most recent available.
While such growth drives earnings, Johnson said, the strategy has more to do with offering employees opportunities like those he has enjoyed during his 31 years with the family-owned company. Johnson has been president since 2015 and president and CEO since January, succeeding Chief Executive Tom Gunkel, who retired after 34 years at Mortenson.
“I view myself as not being on the top of the org chart but rather being on the bottom of the org chart,” said Johnson, who was recognized through the 2017 Top Workplaces survey as the top leader among large companies. “My job only exists to support the men and women that build our projects in the field and provide value to our customers.”
His approach, Johnson said, also involves “scanning the horizon and making sure that the company is prepared for the future.
“The goal of our business is to perpetuate the business for future generations,” Johnson said. “I view my role as a steward in that process.”
Johnson seeks to emulate the ability to connect with team members, customers and business partners that Gunkel and Chairman Emeritus M.A. “Mort” Mortenson, whose father founded the company in 1954, demonstrated.
Working closely with such key leaders will be more difficult for future leaders as Mortenson grows geographically, in number of employees and in the size of projects it builds, including the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium.
While today’s senior leadership team, with a combined tenure of nearly 400 years, has provided great stability, a “generational turnover” is at hand, Johnson said.
To address that he created Mortenson’s Advanced Leadership Development program, a year of classes and events in which participants are “essentially bathed in our leadership culture.”
He and other senior leaders share the high and low points of their careers, recounting missteps and how they recovered from them. In feedback, participants describe that part of the class as a “transformative moment.”
“I think that’s what really defines a leader,” Johnson said. “It’s not that you make mistakes. We’re all human. We’re going to make mistakes. It’s what you do when they happen ... when you face that challenge many times that you didn’t create but you take responsibility for it and you own up to it because it’s the right thing to do.”