Adaptable: John Cruikshank

Jul 17, 2022

President and CEO of JMC², a civil and structural engineering firm that offers solutions for land development and building projects of various scopes and sizes.

By Liisa Andreassen

Cruikshank is president and CEO of two Southern California engineering firms – JMC² (San Pedro, CA) and Okamoto Structural Engineering (Costa Mesa, CA). He’s been involved with hundreds of unique engineering projects, and has managed to leverage that experience to successfully support critical projects. His current responsibilities include corporate leadership, client relations, business development, community outreach, and project management. He worked for three other firms before starting his own.

“I’m a generalist with lots of knowledge on many aspects of engineering and our physical environment,” Cruikshank says. “My staff is well rounded and can adapt to new challenges. We are an adaptable, creative, and knowledgeable team and can pull off extreme engineering events.”

A conversation with John Cruikshank.

The Zweig Letter: You’re the founder of two firms – John Cruikshank Consultants and Okamoto Structural Engineering. Is Okamoto still operating?

John Cruikshank: I founded John M. Cruikshank Consultants, Inc. (JMC²) in 1996 then purchased Ken Okamoto & Associates, Inc. in 2017. Okamoto was officially acquired by JMC² this year and now we have two engineering departments – civil and structural engineering. I purchased Okamoto to expand into the Orange County market and to acquire a new client base and structural engineering talent. JMC² was primarily a civil engineering company where Okamoto did just structural engineering.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

JC: I still spend about 25 percent of my time performing high-level engineering such as expert witness work and constructability reviews. We are not a big company, so I believe it’s important to always keep my door open for all employees to ask questions or provide suggestions. Plus, I spend another 25 percent on business development and proposals. The remaining 50 percent of my time I work on the business – this is so critical.

TZL: Your bio states that you’ve had the opportunity to work on many “unique engineering projects.” Is there one that really stands out in the crowd, and if so, why?

JC: In 2016, I was the lead project manager and engineer for an extreme engineering event called “Heaven Sent.” This was a world record stunt where Luke Aikins jumped from 25,000 feet without a parachute – just the clothes on his back. He landed in a 100-square-foot net lifted by cranes, each fitted with air-piston deceleration devices. JMC² were project managers for the design and testing of the “capture” system to safely stop Luke Aikins’ free-fall. This complex process required the utmost attention to detail, but also was highly constrained by budget needs and practical design issues. The project underwent several rounds of revision and more than a few instances of scrapping a design altogether. JMC² ultimately oversaw what was dubbed “the trap.”

This project demonstrated that engineering can move beyond its “traditional” uses, helping to further innovative projects and ideas. Engineering can create some truly amazing moments. At JMC², we love the idea of “extreme engineering” and are proud to have played a part in this record-setting event.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

JC: No matter how big the problem is I will never be afraid to confront it head on and take responsibility if it is ours to take. Our long-term clients know that JMC² will be there to see their projects through from start to finish. They know they can always call me, and I will listen and find solutions. Always telling the truth and taking responsibility is key.

TZL: You pride yourself on “being responsive in changing conditions.” Can you provide an example of how this has played out in a recent project?

JC: When COVID hit, our structural team had a large portfolio of restaurant and hospitality projects – two industries greatly affected by the pandemic. We took this opportunity to pivot to pursuing more seismic assessment projects, balcony inspections, steel fabrication, and industrial building projects.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

JC: My family has always been a huge part of my career. I started JMC² when I was 29 years old, but I couldn’t have done that if my wife, Jennifer, didn’t trust and believe in me. At the start, she helped with our finances and office management, but that ended many years ago. Recently, my son, Sean, who is still in college, has joined us during the summers to use his drone to capture marketing materials and even some topographic survey data.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

JC: Businesses require so many skills above and beyond just engineering. I wish I had more financial skills at the beginning. The key is to not let any area of the business be neglected as it’s all important. The most important skill is listening to the employees and our customers.

TZL: “Extreme engineering” is a service that you offer. Why would a company pick you for such a project and can you give me an example of exactly what extreme engineering is?

JC: The “Heaven Sent” project was our first “extreme engineering” event. We have been working on garnering sponsorship for the next event called “Thunderpass” where a driver will drive a car upside down in a tunnel for 1.3 miles. Formula One teams have theorized that an F1 car could drive upside down using aerodynamics alone. Nobody has stepped up, so we’re stepping in. I’m a generalist with lots of knowledge on many aspects of engineering and our physical environment. My staff is well rounded and can adapt to new challenges. We are an adaptable, creative, and knowledgeable team and can pull off extreme engineering events.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

JC: For many years, I’ve attended local high schools and career days. If a young person doesn’t know about an engineering career path by their early part of high school then it can become too late by the time they’re a senior. I hire the best talent possible and it’s just worked out that my staff is very diverse (50 percent female, mostly Latino).

TZL: What are some of your key tactics for new business development?

JC: Once I have our marketing and strategic plans set, then I have our team focus on only those markets. For example, we know that the industrial building markets are strong, so I have asked our existing clients who I should talk to in their organization who handles their industrial projects. I do have a director of sales and marketing, and the two of us try to participate in industry events that are in the vertical space of our pursuits. I’m a huge advocate of re-purposing so this is an area I’m very excited about – bringing new life to old buildings.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

JC: Interesting projects and smart mentors. More specifically, our firm focuses on more functionality and less waste. I think that’s important to people today. Of course, compensation is key, but people want more than a paycheck. They want to know that they’re making an impact on the future – creating some sense of sustainability. I’m a huge believer in new technologies and this is one of the things that brings us to a new level and helps us to advance. People want to get in on that stuff. I also believe that the overall process of how things are done in the industry needs to be turned on its head. I try to encourage our engineers to leverage bigger picture standards to create more streamlined projects.

TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?

JC: This is so true. I make sure that our two offices have strong coordinators who can bridge the communication gaps found between clients and our team. I look to hire people who have found harmony in their career – not job shoppers or hoppers. I look for people who can listen and adapt and who can find balance. I conduct long interviews and that’s how I find these things out. While I do not interview everyone who comes in the door, my staff knows what’s important and the interview process tends to reveal these traits.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

JC: Accountability. 

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