Published February 21, 2012
Volume 20, Number 2

JMA Civil Principal Jon Marshall Claims His Niche    

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Jon Marshall had a few tense moments when he got to the Toronto airport back in the winter of 1997. The Canadian native was on his way to the Bay Area to start his first job after college, but he was not 100 percent sure that he would be allowed on the plane. “I had to show the U.S. Customs agents my temporary work permit, my plane ticket, my written job offer. I even had to prove I had shipped my belongings to my new address.” Still, there was no iron-clad guarantee that he would get a boarding pass. “Only when the officials at the airport were completely satisfied did they decide to grant access,” he recalls.

While the ordeal was a little nerve-wracking for the young, eager engineer moving 2,500 miles across the continent, as it turned out there was no hold-up. Being an engineer meant that Marshall had approached the process methodically. An immigration attorney had reviewed his documents, and at the airport all his papers were in order.

The challenging border-crossing was not the first time Marshall exhibited his own brand of deliberate preparation. The founder of Hacienda’s JMA Civil, Inc., knew at a fairly young age that he wanted his life to be associated with building and development. He started researching careers in high school. Architecture did not appeal to him, but he discovered that civil engineering offered the perfect way to pursue his interests. He enrolled in the program at the University of Waterloo, just outside his home town of Toronto. Always strong in math, he felt the fit immediately. Doing well in some of the some more challenging undergraduate classes convinced him he made the right choice.

As graduation approached, it was time for more due diligence. Marshall was attracted to the dynamic market in the Bay Area, and, on the advice of a classmate and friend, decided to look for a job here. He carefully chose his target companies and set up interviews from Toronto. After a few tentative calls to generate interest, he realized he needed to be more compelling. He booked travel plans and then told prospective employers that he was going to be in California during a specific time window. That was the door-opener. “I learned that if you tell people you will be on their doorstep at such and such a time, they will be much more interested.” Testimony to his selling skills, he scheduled 10 interviews over 14 days.

The job offer he showed to Customs agents came from a small structural and water resource engineering firm in Richmond, AN West. Marshall had chosen carefully and again made a good match. “Their president, who has since passed away, was a huge influence on my life and in my career. He believed in me and hired me from Canada. It was one of those life-changing experiences.” Today, Marshall’s former boss is now president of the firm, and they still stay in touch. “These relationships last for a long time,” he comments. 

Marshall spent roughly three years at AN West, working on several projects for the city of San Jose. Then it was time to chart new territory. Making the move he knew was necessary to prepare him for his future, he joined a large national firm, TranSystems, working out of the Oakland branch.

During one of his projects he made several trips to Alaska—to Anchorage, Fairbanks, even the city of North Pole. He found his surroundings beautiful in all seasons, but the minus-50 degree temperatures in Fairbanks were “a whole new world of cold.”

Eleven years at Transystems gave Marshall the opportunity to develop multiple skills and rounded out his knowledge of the business. The “wonderful” hands-on experience brought him to where he is today, he says thoughtfully. It also awakened his entrepreneurial drive and “showed me what I was capable of,” which ultimately led him to the decision to spend the rest of his career working in “a firm of my own making.”

In June 2011 he formed JMA Civil, a civil engineering design and consulting firm that specializes in railroad facility design and site civil design. A certified Small Business Enterprise (SBE) in the State of California, the company now has a staff of three and a network of strong relationships with consultants and experts in sub-disciplines.

A large share of his experience has been with industrial customers that move product by rail. The projects generally entailed getting the sites designed, permitted, approved by various entities, and getting them constructed. “My background is also very strong in site civil and commercial and industrial design, so we have a diversity of skills,” he comments.

What appeals to him about the rail environment is the challenge of balancing railroad requirements with the needs of his clients. “In most cases, the Class 1 or Shortline railroad is bringing its equipment to an industrial facility. You have to understand their standards while looking out for the interests of your client to make it a cost-effective project.

“It is definitely different from other traditional civil design arenas like roadways and bridges,” he explains. “A lot of the engineering issues are the same: alignment, lay out, grading and drainage, the curves you can turn. But our projects have a lot of moving parts, and you have to be able to manage all of them with confidence.”

Marshall also appreciates the sustainability aspect of moving freight by rail. “There are a lot of fuel economy and greenhouse gas savings that come from reducing over-the-road trucking,” he observes. “More and more industries are trying to diversify their logistics to include a rail option, and it will only continue to grow as fuel prices rise.”

While lately he has had little downtime, to recharge he turns to his lifelong hobby, singing. “My mom was a professional singer in Toronto in the 1950s,” he relates. “I guess it’s genetic.” For a time in the early 2000s he performed with a band in San Francisco, and for two years he belonged to an interfaith gospel choir in Oakland. “It was pretty neat exposure to the music industry. We opened the Black and White Ball and did gigs all over San Francisco, including at the city jail.”

As an engineer, he felt right at home taking classes in studio recording. When he mixed and edited his own demo CD, it was the perfect example of bridging the divide between his left brain/right brain, creative and technical sides. “That’s very much like my mom—after singing, she became a credit manager.”  Music-wise, he lists his influences as “strongly rooted in Motown, soul, and R&B.” He surprised his father-in-law when he was able to identify the number one female singer of the 1950s, Patti Page. “That was my mom’s era,” Marshall says. “I acquired all this knowledge from her.”

When he does get the chance to make or play music, Marshall does not have to worry about disrupting his neighbors by turning up the volume. In 2008, he and his partner bought an old, partially restored cabin along a canyon in Sunol. They are surrounded by deer, turkeys, foxes, and majestic old oak trees. “It’s a complete oasis,” he remarks.

The transition back to the office in the morning, though, is always a pleasure. Marshall is highly energized by the growing business. The first nine months at JMA Civil have proven that in starting his own company he made another solid match.

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