James Sommerville, Inc.

Posted by Tom Treanor on Mar 18, 2015


Continuous improvement and respect for people articulate the vision and goals of James Sommerville, Inc. (JSI). JSI performs grading, paving and underground construction projects throughout the Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Southern Santa Clara County areas, with a focus on quality and safety. Company founder Jimmy Sommerville has developed these core values over a lifetime in the construction business.

“In 2006,” Jimmy recalls, “I wasn’t satisfied with the way the construction business was going - it just wasn’t as efficient and effective as it could be. It seemed to me there could be better ways to do things.” He came upon a process called Lean Construction, and began to read and attend classes and to study and learn all he could about this approach. It tries to manage construction processes with minimum cost and maximum value, all the while considering customer needs and aiming for continuous improvement.

Moving his company in this direction has been challenging at times. “People in construction are traditionalists, and don’t always see value in changing processes that are already working for them,” says Jimmy.  “But with the 2008 recession we had to figure out how to survive, and the crisis created a platform for change. We have made huge progress, and have had to learn how to do things differently.”

Being open to change and diversity seems natural to Jimmy, who was born and raised in the tiny Big Sur community of Coastlands, on a ridge high above the Pacific Ocean.  “It was a great place to grow up,” recalls Jimmy.  “The people, from intellectuals to beatniks, were very diverse, but everyone seemed to get along with their different ideas.”  As a child, he started school at the one-room Pfeiffer Schoolhouse, and then went on to Big Sur’s Captain Cooper School. He was a part of their first graduating class, which recently celebrated a fifty year reunion.

“I lived a very colorful youth,” Jimmy says with a laugh, “starting in general construction right out of Carmel High School.” He began work in the grading and paving business in Big Sur and during the 1970s learned his craft at local companies. In the mid-80s, “I got my contractor’s license and started out with a backhoe and a pickup truck.”

Jimmy did well dealing exclusively in private, high-end residential work, and these private customers remain a mainstay of his business. But Jimmy is clear that a key to his success is finding and investing in great people.  JSI looks for young people who are open to new ideas, and has also introduced mathematics testing into its interview process. “Arithmetic is the basis of what we do all day long, every day, and for many young people these skills are not where they need to be.  With the initial interview process they can see that we expect a little bit more from our people.”

Jimmy believes that investing in people is the only answer to making construction an industry of choice for young workers. “We try to hire enough people, put an incentive system in place, define our required skill sets, include profit sharing as an incentive, and encourage team leaders to recruit and train. Then we are able to go out and create a high quality product, safely and productively, to win jobs in this competitive environment.”

A longtime friend of the Graniterock family, Jimmy says, “Graniterock provides a high quality product and stands behind it, which is important in our business. We are only as good as the materials that we put down. When things go wrong from time to time, it is nice to have a partner who will stand there with you to find out what is really wrong and resolve the situation. Graniterock is here to help us, and that does make a difference.”

Jimmy enjoys life in Carmel Valley with his wife Tamara and a six and a half pound Yorkie named Ted. Their extended family includes four children and eight grandchildren. Jimmy is an avid hiker and mountain climber who has hiked the John Muir Trail and has traveled the world to climb mountain peaks with his group of hiking friends.

Having a vision, creating opportunity, and accomplishing lofty goals are Jimmy Sommerville’s approach to life and business. Jimmy says he is planning for retirement and is grooming JSI vice president Bryan Grier to take over the company. Looking ahead, he hopes to see our nation invest in the deteriorating US infrastructure.  “That may be the next great economic boom for the US.  It would create a huge demand for our industry, and become the next great opportunity for construction.”

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