In the second half of the 19th century, Sweden–like many nations–was experiencing a dramatic economic and societal transformation. Between 1850 and 1910, a million Swedes emigrated to the United States. One of them was a young Adolph Johnson who, in 1900, decided it was time to leave his homeland in search of better opportunities.
His first stop was Anita, Pennsylvania, where he toiled in the coal mines, but soon decided the dangerous work wasn’t a long term answer. He then settled in Youngstown and found employment as a carpenter in the home building industry. Despite lacking formal education beyond the 8th grade, he often spent nights in the library teaching himself new aspects of the trade. He eventually teamed up with another Swedish transplant, Andrew Carlson, to form the Johnson-Carlson Company in 1919.
The Johnson-Carlson Company quickly earned recognition for building high quality homes–many in Boardman’s historic Forest Glen district, among other notable Youngstown-area neighborhoods. The company continued with primarily residential building until after WWII, when it began a transition toward more commercial and industrial projects. In 1947 Adolph’s son, Paul Sr., who had served in the Pacific theater during the war, joined the company and it was incorporated as Adolph Johnson & Son Co.
In the subsequent years, the company became known as one of the finest church-builders in the region. One of the most notable such projects–and perhaps the one the Johnsons were most proud of–was the First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown, built in 1960. Another area where they thrived was health care facilities, such as hospitals.
In more recent history, the company has built over 30 new Sheetz stores, in addition to Phantom Fireworks facilities, numerous office buildings, auto dealerships, manufacturing facilities and warehouses. Current projects include a 10000 sq. ft. truck stop on 10 acres.
Today, Adolph Johnson & Son Co. is headed by Paul Jr., Adolph’s grandson. The company has established a well-rounded portfolio of commercial and industrial projects.
Their extensive experience and commitment to quality has led to a well-earned reputation as one of the region’s most distinguished commercial builders.
Paul Jr. began working with his father in the summers as a teenager. Initially unsure of whether he wanted to follow suit with a career in the family business, he attended Duke University, after which he spent a few years in Colorado.
“I had subscribed to Forbes magazine, and I read an article by Malcolm Forbes where he said his opportunity to join his father’s business and see what he could do with it was such a wonderful, life-changing opportunity for him. Something about that just struck me. It wasn’t long after that I talked to my dad about coming back and joining the company.”
Paul Jr. came aboard full time in 1976 as an apprentice estimator, while also handling crucial operations such as emptying wastebaskets and re-filling water pans atop the radiators to help humidify the dry winter air. He eventually moved into project management.
When asked about some of the major changes he has witnessed during his time in the industry, he is quick to cite the technological advancements that have allowed projects to be managed more efficiently.
“As in almost every industry, the single biggest impact has been the computer. We estimate a job now in a fraction of the time it used to take. Our productivity has increased exponentially, which has allowed us to scale at a rate we never imagined.
The cell phones, tablets, etc. we have in the field now have had a dramatic impact on communication. Jobs get done much faster than they did 30-40 years ago. We recently tore down and rebuilt an entire Sheetz store in 8 weeks. That would have been unheard of even a couple decades ago.
The other big change for us has been our geographic reach. We used to operate pretty much exclusively in a five county area. Now we are able to do work in states like New York, New Jersey, Indiana and West Virginia.”
Adolph Johnson & Son Co. operates as a general contractor, often performing design-build projects.
The company is a longstanding member of The Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, and Paul Johnson says he has a deep appreciation for the organization’s mission of advancing the interests of its members and the building trades as a whole.
“I’m a firm believer that you’re either moving forward or going backward both in life and in business. There is no standing still. The Builders Association is definitely helping the industry move forward.”
Johnson is also eager to highlight how fortunate his company has been over the years regarding the quality of people that make up the organization, both in the office and the field.
“We’re not a huge organization, so as a result, everyone has to get along. We’ve been very lucky in being able to find the right people who have helped us maintain our focus on relationships and quality workmanship.”
As it was for most businesses in the construction industry, 2020 was a challenging year, where overall volume was down a bit. However, Johnson says the future is bright, and he sees plenty of opportunity.
“I see us continuing to grow at a pace that is manageable, and allows us to stay true to our culture of reliability and attention to detail. People valued integrity 100 years ago, and they still do today.”