Women in Construction Week 2019: Cheryl Johnson Discusses her Path to Swinerton, Emerging Bay Area Trends, and Supporting Working Moms

What’s your role at Swinerton?

My official title is Director of Preconstruction, but really what I do on a day-to-day basis is position Swinerton to win new business. I’m focused on building and sustaining our relationships throughout the Bay Area, understanding what opportunities are available for us to pursue, and helping shape the strategic direction of our business in the region.

How did you get into construction?

Actually, I was studying interior design at Cal Poly, and it was very much the opposite of construction. It was a crowd full of women, and I remember thinking of ways to distinguish myself from the pack, because I felt like I’ll never be markedly different, but if I was in construction, I always thought I could get back to interior design.

I went to work for the design-builder on the GC side as a summer job through a friend—I was one of just a few females there, but it helped me find my passion for the work.

After graduation, I worked for a civil firm, then worked for Turner for a while, and I have always been by and large on the front end of the work—estimating, preconstruction, business development. I have really enjoyed being part of the path of working with clients to get a project pulled together, and that role of going from an idea to shovels in the ground was what I chose as my career.

After I had been with Turner I felt like I wanted to be at a smaller firm—and Swinerton 22 years ago was much smaller than we are today. Swinerton had a strong reputation in Los Angeles and really good reputation in the subcontractor market, so I found an opportunity and made the jump.

Having come to Swinerton when I did, have always felt since day one that I was equal to anybody else here. I never had the feeling that my ideas or my thoughts weren’t as worthy, and I always felt that everyone is equal, old or new, black or white, male or female, every voice is heard. It’s a really transparent environment, the firm has seen a lot of value and a lot of strength from teams that are balanced and blended thanks to that environment of inclusion.

What trends are you noticing in the Bay Area?

One clear trend is that there is a lot of education and school work right now, and a lot of money available for that with many local communities looking to invest. There’s also a shift from residential work to more office and civic work, like our new parking structure project for the city of Palo Alto. There’s also some energy afoot for more P3 projects, like both of our projects in Salinas, the Salinas Police Service Headquarters and the El Gabilan Branch Library.

What projects are you really excited to be working on?

Everything related to mass timber building is exciting right now. We have two mass timber buildings in development for

Kresge College at UC Santa Cruz, which will be a great fit there, especially because the culture of UC Santa Cruz is so much about the natural environment.

I’m also excited about our Parcel A at Pier 70 project with Brookfield Development in San Francisco, which will be a new office space right in Mission Bay. We’re looking to see right now if mass timber is the right option there, and it’s a great project to be involved with.

The great thing about mass timber, particularly here in the Bay Area, is that it solves or starts to solve some of our problems around manpower. It’s a far more prefabricated kit of parts that comes to the jobsite, and it’s much lighter on the land. Our footprint onto a site is much smaller and much more sustainable. On top of that, it’s aesthetically very pretty. Our clients are excited about it and really like the new technology, so it’s really attractive to a wide range of clients, developers, academics, and end users.

How would you describe the Swinerton company culture?

What’s unique about this company is that you’re offered ownership, and you can become an owner almost immediately.

Our culture is one that provides an open platform for forward-thinking individuals regardless of how long they’ve been at Swinerton or who they are. When someone has a Swinerton has an idea, it’s always heard. Some of our most impactful ideas have bloomed from our employee owners coming up with an idea, like solar, for example.

I have always felt that Swinerton is well thought of, and well organized, but I would say the biggest way in which we have evolved is in our perspective of the life-work balance of working mothers. Our flexibility and how we accommodate working mothers has grown and gotten better.

Personally, I want working mothers to not feel conflicted that they’re choosing between Swinerton and their family—it’s not one or the other—and people hear that and see that and are respectful of that. Working parents don’t need to be choosing between the two. They don’t need the stress of work demands when they’re having to get to daycare, and especially when their children have health issues or special needs, the accommodation that we make comes from knowing that if we can take that pressure off parents, that’s a great gift for retention and happiness. It bodes well for our company and for our employees.

What do you like about Swinerton?

I really don’t think I’ve seen much change, because I think the platform here has always existed for people to be successful. We’re more accommodating and more flexible than we used to be to be successful and to have children, but as I said, the environment here has been very equal.

When you see the nature of teams that we present at interviews, our teams represent the communities that we live and work in, and especially in the Bay Area, you have to have teams that are diverse if you want to really understand and make a genuine impact in your local communities.

I genuinely believe that if you’re a woman in this business and you come to Swinerton, you have the best shot of being successful, it’s a great nurturing environment, and there are amazing mentors at every level of the firm.


Connect with Cheryl on Linkedin by clicking here