John McAdams: A lasting leader

March 2014 » Features » CE PROFILE
Starting with one desk and a phone and emphasizing strong client relationships, he created a firm with determination to match his own.
Maureen Foody

John McAdams embodies the North Carolinian motto, “To be rather than to seem.” When he was young, he often was told that becoming an engineer was a good idea, so much so that he jokes he was brainwashed. “One summer at the beach I even built an intricate cloverleaf interchange in the sand,” he recalled. “Strangers passing by would say, ‘You should be an engineer.’” McAdams also learned through activities with the Boy Scouts and heading a student government committee that he enjoyed being in a leadership role.

McAdams Established: 1979
Headquarters: Raleigh/Durham, N.C.
Size: 96 employees (approximate) in offices
Ownership: Private
Website: http://mcadamsco.com
Primary services: Civil engineering, land planning, landscape architecture, stormwater, environmental, surveying, and construction services

John McAdams enjoys fishing in Alaska with his son, Wes.

However, he knew engineering was the end goal, so after high school he entered the engineering program at Duke University to earn his Bachelor of Science degree. “I never even thought about deviating. I always felt lucky that I didn’t have anguish over what I wanted to do,” McAdams said. Duke held his attention with a demanding pace, but McAdams soon found his place. “By senior year I had figured out how to be a good student, enjoying my civil engineering classes, especially hydraulics and earth structures because of inspiring professors.”

McAdams soon began working with a local firm that gave him his first taste as a project manager. He eventually led the largest of the firm’s three North Carolina offices. “This definitely whetted my appetite,” said McAdams. “I was also in charge of all proposal preparation because I was the one who revamped the process.”

After some difficulties with the company, McAdams decided to set out on his own. Inspired by his father’s entrepreneurial spirit as a merchant who owned his own appliance store, McAdams had known for a long time that he wanted to one day found an engineering firm. “I was intrigued by the challenge of creating an organization that would be known for excellence in client service,” said McAdams.

Of course, the routine problems of smaller firms made it difficult during the initial years to attract talent and retain employees, but with a focus on private-sector land development projects and a hands-on management approach, the firm began to blossom. “I had a strong focus on the business of engineering, as opposed to the problem-solving activities that are at the core of engineering,” said McAdams.

McAdams founded the John R. McAdams Company in 1979 in this building in Chapel Hill, N.C.

In 1983, the four-year-old firm got a big break when a client called and said he was developing 2,200 acres of land in eastern North Carolina with two miles of frontage on the Intracoastal Waterway. “We were retained for all the land planning, site engineering, and surveying on this project non-competitively, just based on our relationship with the developer. We worked on this project for the next eight years, and it really helped put us on the map,” McAdams said. “The Landfall Development was known in real estate circles around the state and McAdams Company was the design firm behind it.”

Using this validating achievement, McAdams Company was able to continue its growth. “Even starting out, I knew I wanted to build an organization and not just hang out my own shingle and ‘do engineering.’” explained McAdams. “Because you’re essentially nobody when you start out on your own, the early years make it difficult to attract really good talent. This resulted in me being too involved in some of the client relationships, diverting my attention away from building and running the company. Fifteen years in, a leadership consultant said to me, “You’ve got a 100-person firm. It needs a leader.”

So McAdams buckled down, using expertise gleaned from years of management experience and his MBA from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. This has helped the firm continue to grow, expanding its expertise and projects. Today the firm handles matters not only in civil engineering and land development but also landscape architecture, surveying, environmental matters, stormwater solutions, and construction services.

Although the housing market faltered in the late 2000s, McAdams recovered from the shaky years and continues to grow today while remaining steadfast in its dedication to making its local community better. “My favorite place to work is definitely my office in Research Triangle Park, N.C.,” McAdams said. “It’s a great part of the country; moreover, I have come to really enjoy spending my days with the talented, energetic, and witty folks who make up McAdams Company these days.”

In 1999, McAdams Company relocated to this new building in Raleigh/Durham, N.C.

The firm now goes by “McAdams” rather than the John R. McAdams Company, although it hasn’t officially changed its name. McAdams made the change after he stepped down from the presidency in 2010. The firm is now under the leadership of President Mike Munn, but McAdams remains involved in some evolutionary programs for the company. “These range from seeking entry into a broad array of economic sectors,  to searching for an existing firm to acquire in order to move us into new areas of services, enhancing our employee retention program, and of course, pursuing our ongoing ownership transition program,” explained McAdams.

The shortened name is not only simpler in form but also an indication that the organization is moving beyond the era of formation, a feat which is no easy task. McAdams advised those starting out or looking to hone their skills that, “Whoever your client is, whatever sector of our economy, you have to work hard to understand the values and goals of your client. Without that understanding, you cannot serve them well.” You have to not only deliver the correct essentials, but also present a full solution that they can trust, McAdams said.

This also feeds into what he cited as the biggest challenge contemporary civil engineers face: commoditization. “You have to strive to connect with those you serve. You have to make it clear that we as engineers are helping to further their goals and plans,” McAdams said. “We all live within the built environment, and civil engineers are the champions within that environment. Unless you like the idea of living your life immersed in the woods, you should hug an engineer.”

John McAdams, daughter Leigh, and wife Janice, celebrate Leigh’s graduation in Bradenton, Fla.

McAdams joked that when you are in civil engineering, “every organization you are a member of wants to put you on their building and grounds committees, so I’m currently doing that with my church and a private Christian school, Trinity School.” He also serves on the board for the Triangle Land Conservancy, American Council of Engineering Companies (North Carolina chapter), and Harrington Bank.

McAdams also enjoys spending more time with his family now. He’s happily married to Janice McAdams, who works as an executive director of a non-profit organization in Chapel Hill, N.C., where they currently live. They have three children: Wes lives in Washington, D.C.; Wade in Raleigh, N.C.; and Leigh in Atlanta.

“My interests now include cycling, fly and saltwater fishing, and skiing,” McAdams said. “My wife and I have promised ourselves that we will travel more, particularly in less developed regions of the globe.”

McAdams puts out this mat each Christmas season.

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at maureen.t.f@gmail.com.


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