News & Press

Walt Johnson Takes the Reins as AGC of California President

AGC of California President Walt Johnson has always considered himself a ‘hands-on’ guy. From his first job on a Sonoma dairy ranch during high school, to the start of his career in the heavy construction industry after college helping run a complex water treatment project, and in the 30 years and countless projects since, he has never been afraid to get his hands dirty and never shied away from a challenge. 

“Because I’ve always been a hands-on, do-it-myself kind of guy, my leadership style is to lead by example,” Johnson says. “When we’re doing something (on a K.G. Walters project), it is usually nothing I haven’t already done myself before. And I’m happy to get in the trenches with people and work through whatever we’ve got to work through to come to resolution.”

That approach should serve both Johnson and AGC of California well in the year ahead, as he helps the association navigate the inevitable challenges and opportunities that go hand-in-hand with growth and change. AGC recently experienced its first top executive leadership change in over 30 years with the retirement of longtime CEO Tom Holsman and the hiring of Peter Tateishi in his stead. 

“We’ve been planning and working towards this transition, so making sure it goes smoothly is a key goal,” Johnson comments.

His other primary goals as 2018 President? “We’ve been working on member engagement and member growth, and that push will continue,” he notes. “We’re really working to promote and push greater member involvement and to get new people more involved. And we will also continue to work on improving our overall messaging as an association as well, to make sure we’re sharing all of AGC’s successes.”

As Johnson helps steer the state’s largest construction association, he continues to oversee K.G. Walters Construction Company, Inc., where he has served as President, CEO and majority stakeholder since 2001 after joining the Santa Rosa-based firm in 1990.

The Path to a Heavy Civil Construction Career

Born in the North Bay Area, Johnson spent the majority of his youth in Sonoma County and then went on to attend Chico State University. He initially planned to major in electrical engineering but soon migrated to construction management. Johnson credits several key mentors for influencing his career path, including his grandfather, an electrician who worked on the Hetch Hetchy water project, as well as the late Stuart Bartholomew, a construction industry icon and one of Johnson’s college professors who helped him land his first job after college in 1988. Johnson spent two years with Paul A. Laurence Co., discovering how much he liked the diverse, challenging nature of heavy civil construction work. 

In 1990, that company ran into financial difficulties and announced it would be going out of business. Johnson weighed offers from large and small companies but ultimately settled on the smaller, privately held K.G. Walters Construction Company as the best fit. 

K.G. Walters had just landed a technically advanced wastewater treatment plant job, one of the first to employ reuse of tertiary treated water. Johnson had the opportunity to “basically run that job,” he notes. “As a young, ambitious guy, it’s what I was looking for. One of the things (then owner) Ken Walters gave me was rope just about long enough to hang myself with,” he adds with a laugh. 

After that project, Johnson moved with his young family to Carmel, where he managed a project designed to supply water to Pebble Beach golf courses. After approximately seven years in the field, they moved back to Santa Rosa and he came into the company’s main office as Vice President of Estimating. In 2001 Walt Johnson and two other employees put together a buyout plan, and Johnson assumed the role of company President and CEO.

Over the past quarter century, K.G. Walters has grown from a $10 million-a-year company to approximately $25 million in annual volume, with a continued focus on public water and wastewater treatment plants and other infrastructure projects primarily in Northern California and Northern Nevada. Long-term employees fill the company’s ranks, including a 15-person management and administrative staff and a seasonal workforce that fluctuates between 40 to 65. 

Johnson fosters an environment that stresses growth, independence and empowerment for those employees, similar to what he was looking for many years ago. “Some of my greatest lessons in construction have been from the mistakes I’ve made,” he says. “I think giving people the ability to make a few mistakes results in stronger people at the end of the day. We try to give our people the tools they need, the training they need and the support they need. With that, we let them go run these jobs, kind of like their own little companies, with a lot of freedom to do what they need to get the job done.”

K.G. Walters take pride in its reputation as a fair, quality contractor backed by a highly skilled, experienced workforce. “Our jobs are challenging, with plenty of problems to work through, but at the end of the day we leave every job with a lot of respect on both sides,” Johnson says. “We always want to leave a job so that the owner would want to have us back if they have the choice.”

Involvement in AGC of California

A measure of Walt Johnson’s own career growth over the years stemmed from active involvement in AGC of California. He first got involved with the North Bay District board over 25 years ago, serving as Chair for a few years. He and wife, Pegeen, AGC’s 2018 First Lady, also have long attended statewide conferences and meetings, frequently bringing along their daughters Maggie, 26, and Maddie, 24, when they were younger. “It really is like family; my kids grew up attending a lot of AGC events,” he comments. 

He agreed to join the officers’ corps in 2015, serving consecutive years as Treasurer, Vice President, Senior Vice President and finally now as President.

Johnson points to a number of core strengths that he thinks make AGC unique in the industry, most notably its strong legislative and regulatory programs at the local, regional, state and national levels. “If you just think of the regulations and laws that are passed and that impact our industry, AGC has been at the forefront of fighting those regulations or at least making them more palatable,” he notes. 

Workforce development is another major, ongoing focus for AGC of California, with its continuing leadership in this arena evidenced by its recent partnership with Go Build California. The industrywide shortage of skilled workforce has hit particularly close to home for Johnson, who lives directly in area devastated by the Northern California wildfires last fall. 

“A lot of people not tied to the construction industry weren’t aware of our dire workforce shortage, but it’s been the talk of the North Bay up here with everybody now trying to rebuild,” he notes. “When I go to these rebuilding meetings a major question always is, where is the labor going to come from? I think a light is getting shined on a problem that is really prevalent throughout the country.”