Spotlight On... Matt Johnson: Celebrating 25 Years at Columbia

December 13, 2021
Spotlight On... Matt Johnson: Celebrating 25 Years at Columbia

This month we are pleased to shine the spotlight on Matt Johnson, who has been with Columbia for 25 years. 

Matt is a hard worker and a firm believer that if you’re willing to work hard and learn from your experiences, you will always have a job to do. In his teenage years, Matt worked many different jobs that developed his strong communication and trade skills. As he progressed throughout his career, Matt continued to cultivate those skills. While at Columbia, Matt has managed projects for many of the finest hotels, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and universities, along with a number of historic buildings in and around the Boston area. Matt’s drive, commitment to providing clients with the best possible experience, and his passion for getting the job done right, has been the pathway to many satisfied and repeat clients through the years and into his current role as Director of Hospitality. 

What was your path to finding a career in the construction industry?
Growing up in northern California in the 60’s and 70’s my public education was much different than what most kids have access to now. I was very fortunate to have participated in various skills-related courses from 6th grade through High School. At a young age, I was very comfortable working with tools, so taking classes in woodshop, metal shop, drafting, electronics, jewelry making, pottery, fly tying, fishing rod building, etc. was an incredible outlet for me. The value of learning those skills at an early age has helped me throughout my life. I started working many different jobs in my early teens on weekends and after school. I worked a variety of retail jobs where I quickly learned how to communicate effectively with very difficult people. While working at Mosure’s RV Center, I became proficient with other trade skills by installing and repairing campers, trailers, trailer hitches, truck caps and RV accessories. Working with air tools, welders, installing 12-volt wiring, driving tractors and forklifts were incredible learning experiences. Those skills played a significant role in helping me transition to the Local 378 Iron Workers Union at age 19, first as a machine operator, then as a fitter and crane operator working on structural steel fabrication.

Fast forward a couple of years, I moved to the East Coast to be closer to my soon to be wife, Mary Ellen - we’ve been together for 37 years! While living in Melrose, I eventually connected with my neighbor, Peter Ferrini, who hired me to work for him building high-end homes in North Andover. During my time with Ferrini Construction Co., I worked closely with Peter and his brother Dino, who was a highly skilled carpenter and craftsman. We built award-winning residential homes and eventually moved on to working on commercial projects, including the Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cambridge. The church renovation was my first job working as a foreman/superintendent. I enjoyed that experience quite a bit and a couple of years later, I secured my MA builders license and started my own small general contracting business in Andover, working mostly on custom millwork, hand-built kitchens, bathrooms, and specialty furniture pieces. 

About five years later, I met Randy Lilly, co-owner of Columbia, who happened to live on the same street as several of my customers in Andover. Randy heard about my work and hired me to take on a few projects in his home. Shortly after I completed those projects, Columbia awarded me a small nursing home project in Newburyport working for PM Chris McCarthy. It was not too long after the Newburyport project that Columbia offered me a full-time job as an Assisted Project Manager– I’ve been here ever since! 

What have you liked most about working at Columbia?
Without a doubt, the company’s family atmosphere was very appealing to me from the beginning and is still a key characteristic of the firm today. I’ve enjoyed being able to speak openly with all levels of leadership and being mentored and challenged by the close-knit staff along the way. Having run my own small business, joining Columbia provided a great transition into a construction management role. I was still very much in charge of my projects and able to use my skills to maximize profit and ensure quality, while also being a part of a larger team, knowing they were there for support and had my back every step of the way.

What lessons did you learn early-on in your career that you still carry with you today?
Don’t waste any time worrying about the things you don’t have any control over. Remember to focus your time and attention on the things you can control or positively impact. 

When your work feels overwhelming and impossible, try to narrow your daily focus to a few key priorities and get them done, without distraction. The only way to stay positive and feel good about yourself and your work product is to ensure that you can actually accomplish a few goals every day and build from there.

Career highlight? Or most memorable job or cherished memory while working here at Columbia?
After 25 years, there are many. My first major hotel project was working with PM Fred Scribner on an interior renovation of the historic Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. After that, I managed major renovations at the Copley Plaza for the better part of 10 years and I remained an integral part of the Fairmont team through numerous ownership changes along the way. I’ve always been proud that our effort, dedication, and quality of work fostered many new relationships with other hotel owner groups at Fairmont Hotels and beyond. Our team’s reputation and longevity of working in that historic building played a significant role in expanding Columbia’s strong position in the Boston Hospitality sector. Over the years, we have managed significant Boston projects at many of the finest hotels and we have developed long-lasting relationships with owner’s and design teams worldwide.

As for a fond memory, one year I took a “work trip” to Carrara, Italy, with an owner and architect. For several days, we traveled high into the mountain quarries jammed into a tiny Russian 4x4 - it was the size of a speed bump compared to the wheels on the earth moving equipment with whom we shared the tiny mountain road! The goal of this trip was to help the architect select special stone from quarried blocks that were the size of a house. Being in the mountains and watching the active quarries in all directions was an amazing experience. The wine and privately cooked meals with the quarry owner every night weren’t bad either! 

How would your colleagues/clients describe you?
Probably a little old school and a bit demanding, but very fair, capable, and trusted as a strong leader to get the job done.

Three descriptors that best describe you.
Good Husband | Good Father | Good Son

Special talent or most useful skill?
Ability to visualize the elements of a problem or difficult situation and clear away the unimportant “clutter” and lead the team towards a practical solution.

Favorite summer or winter activity?
Road trips anywhere – anytime. I love camping in the summer and skiing in the winter. 

Favorite vacation spot?
Cross country camping trips, anywhere. 

Favorite band?
Rush, in the early 80’s. Chris Stapleton, right now.

Two items on your desk?
1.    Leftover smoke bombs from a Boston Fire Department smoke evacuation test at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.
2.    Blue Hoover Dam hard hat from a tour of the interior structure.

Cat or dog?

Morning person or night owl?
Night Owl

When not in the office, Matt is always up to spending time with his family, going on a long road trip, working on his house, or playing with his tractor and other tools in his yard. He is highly regarded, having led an incredibly talented team of knowledgeable and committed people through the last 25 years. Thank you, Matt, for your hard work and dedication – happy anniversary!