John Jastrem, Chairman & CEO, Callison

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EARLY LIFE: I was raised in Plains, Pennsylvania. My father was involved in the Manhattan Project during World War II. He was in the military police and also cooked for some of the guys. He knew all the scientists.

FIRST JOB: My uncles were entrepreneurs who believed in child labor so I started working very young. One uncle had a trucking business and I worked in the garages, and started driving trucks a lot younger than I should have. Another uncle built houses, so I got involved in that. I learned a lot about how to run a business, about the entrepreneurial spirit. That’s what America was built on and we have to reignite that because the rest of the world has a lot of entrepreneurial spirit.

CAREER: At first, I wanted to be a doctor and so I studied the sciences, but one of my cousins said I should be an accountant, so I studied finance in school and went to work for Arthur Andersen in New York. I worked on big multinational conglomerates like ITT and Texaco, learning a lot about international business and SEC reporting.

WEST COAST: I transferred to Los Angeles with Andersen, then went to Wickes Cos., a big turnaround company run by Sandy Sigoloff, where I was on the M&A team. We were doing billion-dollar deals when a billion dollars was a lot of money. My first assignment was a $4 billion junk bond deal in 1986 through Michael Milken. Those were fun times. There was a lot of change happening in the world and the United States was driving a ton of growth.

PUBLISHING: I later became CFO of Knapp Communications. We owned Architecture Digest, Bon Appetit and Home magazine. With paper prices up and advertising down, it was a hard business to reinvent. We held these big events with chefs we knew through Bon Appetit. We would get antique car dealers to drive buy with classic cars. Those were successful programs, but it was a lot of work. When the recession hit, BMW pulled their ads. Their head of advertising for BMW North America said: “We are going to put our ads in magazines that aren’t associated with conspicuous consumption.” I told him, “You’re going to end up advertising to people who can’t afford your cars.” He called me the next day and reinstated the ads. We ended up selling the company to Condé Nast.

TECHNOLOGY: Later, I became COO of Acme Acquisition Holdings Corp., a rental equipment company. Hertz had the best systems in the industry, but they were on mainframes. We put the information on servers in the regional offices so managers could get reports that answered unique questions without having to go to the IT guy at headquarters. That gave us a big advantage.

TURNAROUNDS: Eventually, I started my own turnaround company. I ran a bunch of companies, one of which was Colt Firearms. We put in a lot of computerized machine tools to take out labor costs and manufacture better and faster. We fixed it and handed it off. It’s doing pretty well.

LESSONS: One is having a great team. You can’t have any weak links in the chain. But the other part is making certain that you are addressing both the positive priorities and the negative ones. You have the opportunities and then you have the things that can cause you a bad surprise.

INNOVATION: Working in different industries, I’ve learned that people tend to move around within an industry, so companies in that industry tend to copy each other. One of the key ways to innovate is to learn what works in another industry and apply it to your sector. Then you can be a step ahead of the competition.

CALLISON: In 2006, Callison needed capital to expand and selected Blue Point Capital Partners, an equity company. I invested money and became a part owner and sat on Callison’s board. Those were phenomenal years. We were opening offices and growing. We went from 650 to 1,200 employees. Our biggest constraint was finding talented architects. Then, things just dried up. Employment fell back to 600. Right now we are back to 900, but it’s a much more competitive marketplace.

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: Callison’s roots go back to Nordstrom being one of our key clients. Their focus on service became ingrained in our culture and that has been a huge asset. Not only do we want to deliver everything the client expects, but we want to exceed their expectations. That means really understanding our clients as well as our clients’ clients.

RECESSION: Two things helped us get through it: great clients like Nordstrom and REI that continued to invest in their businesses, and China, which kept growing even though the rest of the world was slowing down. Since we’d been in China for 20 years, we didn’t have to make new investments. And we already had good relationships with the top local developers. We now have 350 employees in Beijing and Shanghai doing business in 51 cities in China. We also have overseas offices in Dubai, London and Mexico, and we’ll probably open an office in India soon.

VIRTUAL TEAMS: Most companies are organized with each office having a certain budget. We focus on clients instead, servicing them with the best resources wherever they might be. If we have a project in Seattle that requires an expert from our China or London office, we will get that person on the project. To do that, we need a secure network that can handle big files and has lots of redundancy. We have upgraded our entire infrastructure for that. It costs a little more money, but it enables us to work far more efficiently. We also use iPads so designers can go through many iterations with a client to get just the right look and feel.

LUXURY RETAIL: Luxury continues to do well for us. In Europe, key retail brands continue to invest in that market. In the United States, we got the Louis Vuitton flagship store in Houston and the Beverly Hills Tiffany store. Big malls and shopping centers want the right luxury retailers. We know the developer, we know the leasing agent and we know the properties, so we are a natural fit to very efficiently get them into the right location in the center and to build it our pretty quickly. That category is tough to play in. The luxury players have extremely tight specifications and their timelines are very tight. We need employees of the caliber and drive to meet those high standards.

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