Making a difference: Chad Nixon

Jan 29, 2023

President and chairman of the board at McFarland Johnson, a national consultancy providing program management, planning, environmental, engineering, and construction phase services.

By Liisa Andreassen

Nixon became president and chairman of McFarland Johnson in January 2020, and in his role he brings tremendous energy to the firm and is consistently sought out for his innovative problem-solving skills. He leads the strategic growth of MJ’s transportation, aviation, environmental, and civil/facilities divisions and provides oversight relative to new services, growth opportunities, and industry trends.

He’s been with the firm for more than 20 years, and during this time, he’s worked as an airport planner, planning manager, aviation division director, and director of business development.

So, why has he stayed there over the years? He says it’s because MJ is such a dynamic company.

“You have the ability to make a difference here. It’s very rewarding. I was given a great deal of rope in my various positions and now I guess I’m the one handing out the rope,” he says.

A conversation with Chad Nixon.

The Zweig Letter: What do you find to be the most important part of your job? Why?

Chad Nixon: Hiring and retaining top talent. A company is nothing without its people. We’ve done a fantastic job of recruiting and retaining a staff of some of the best in the industry. In fact, we’ve grown dramatically over the past year – 20 percent. Employee referrals are a large part of how we find new people. Last year we spent zero dollars on recruitment services. That says a lot. We also effectively engage with people’s alma maters.

TZL: How did COVID-19 permanently impact your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

CN: We’ve always had flexible policies. While we may have more people working a hybrid schedule now than compared to pre-pandemic, it has not really had much of an impact on the policies per se. Hybrid scheduling just makes sense. It’s an effective tool for people to balance their careers and personal lives.

TZL: What are your top concerns about the industry right now? What are you doing to address them?

CN: There are two big ones:

  1. Construction cost escalation. While costs are coming down somewhat we are still concerned about stubbornly high construction costs eating into the buying power of various infrastructure funding sources. We’re in constant contact with regulators and clients about managing the timing for funding various projects and extending the deadlines for construction to help manage costs.
  2. Workforce. The AEC industry is extremely busy. There is more work than there are people to do the work. This is causing a variety of challenges including rapidly rising wages, higher turnover, and concerns for what happens when the industry normalizes. MJ has extremely low turnover, around one-third of the industry average, but I see very high turnover elsewhere, particularly at many of the largest companies in our industry.

TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?

CN: My mentor early on in my career was a four feet five inches tall woman named Deserine Jordan. I knew her during my time in the Navy when I worked as an air traffic controller. I’ll never forget her energy and how good she was at her job. She helped me learn the importance of a strong work ethic, patience, and paying it back to others who are trying to advance in their careers.

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

CN: Trust takes time. It typically results from being in the trenches with a client and helping them through challenging projects. For example, awhile back, I was very sick with the flu and there was a meeting they needed to attend that we all knew would be a contentious one. I dragged myself to the meeting, got up, and talked about the issue and stood up for the client. They always remembered that and knew I would do whatever it took and always act in their best interest. I’m very proud to say that each year we send out anonymous client surveys and this past year, 100 percent – let me say that again – 100 percent of them said they would hire us again.

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

CN: You have to be well rounded and a good listener. You don’t have to be an expert in every area, but you should have a strong understanding of what everyone is doing. You need to have a people knowledge as well as business knowledge. Pay attention to those things you learn in school such as revenue and utilization because you’ll be using them again. Finally, hire the right people and give them the tools they need to succeed.

TZL: What makes you excited about the future of the industry and the firm?

CN: The currently stable funding and continued melding of technology into everything we do in the AEC industry makes it an exciting industry to be in. The technology arm of MJ is our InfraSolutions Division. This division combines traditional planning, design, and construction services with a wide range of technologies such as UAS, software development, and visualizations to name a few.

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

CN: Diversity is definitely lacking in our industry. Here are a few things we’re doing:

  • We offer a paid parental leave program
  • MJ has a Women in STEM employee resource group
  • We include diverse colleges and universities in our recruiting efforts
  • We offer HBCU Micro-Internships
  • MJ has a commitment to professional growth for all
  • MJ offers incentives for participating in STEM student presentations

TZL: Your website states, “We positively impact people’s lives every day.” Can you provide me with a recent example that serves to illustrate this?

CN: People interact with various forms of infrastructure every day. We seek to constantly improve that interaction and improve our environment. We recently completed the award-winning Marmen – Welcon Offshore wind tower manufacturing plant project for the Port of Albany in New York. This project brings together Marmen Energy from Quebec Canada, and Welcon from Denmark who will operate this facility. This project is the first of its kind in the United States. MJ led a multi-disciplined team providing full service (MEP, structural, civil, environmental, and transportation services). The bridge component of the project is the first in the world as it will be able to carry the projected 500-meter ton tower sections. This has never been done before.

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

CN: Being an employee-owned firm is probably number one. Staff also like the internal “Rising Leaders” program where people can move up quickly and make an impact faster. MJ actively supports employee owners in their personal and professional development in a variety of other ways too. For example, we cover the cost of necessary preparation and testing for professional licensures, industry registrations, and other certifications, and more. We also survey staff each year and mostly, staff love the exciting projects they’re involved in and love the people they’re working with at MJ.

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

CN: President of recruiting. I am working to make MJ an amazing place to work and to grow our culture. We recently changed our core values to one main core value – people – that includes staff, clients, and the people in the communities we serve. We base all of our decisions on how it will benefit and affect each group. If there are more negatives than positives, we have our decision.  

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