With a civil engineering degree from Cal Poly and no experience running a company, Mike Cannon stepped into the unknown in 1987.
He was 27 years old when the owners of the San Luis Obispo civil engineering and surveying firm where he had worked since he was an intern offered to sell it to him.
He didn’t turn it down.
“If I knew then what I know now, I never would have done it,” Cannon said, adding that it was a combination of ignorance about the undertaking and confidence in his abilities that compelled him to make such a bold move.
He quickly surrounded himself with people who helped him to make sound business decisions and seized opportunities to learn about leadership and management whenever he could.
As Cannon Corp. celebrates 40 years in business this year, the firm is thriving. Together with a strong team of employees, the company is a respected leader in the engineering arena, locally and nationally. Well known for its projects and culture, the firm is growing, with about 140 employees and five offices throughout California.
“I always had a desire to have something to work on for my entire life,” he said. “I wanted something I could build. I saw this and thought I could build this, and build it forever.”
Cannon recently talked to The Tribune about what it takes to keep a firm strong for four decades.
Q: Tell me about some of the projects about which Cannon is most proud.
A: In the North County: We do a lot of work in oil and gas, designing the systems that produce and transport product from the well head to the refiners.
We provided construction management for the new interchange at Highway 46 and Highway 101.
On the North Coast: We’re designing a bike path that will connect Cambria to Morro Bay.
In San Luis Obispo: We are teamed to design the city’s new water reclamation facility, and we have over 1,600 units of workforce housing on the boards right now at the Orcutt area, Avila Ranch and San Luis Ranch. We are fortunate to have been involved with many great projects at Cal Poly, including Cerro Vista apartments, Poly Canyon Village, the baseball stadiums and the new campus housing project.
We’ve been a part of the Diablo Engineering team for many years. We provided the engineering for the dry cask spent fuel storage facility. We spent six years at Avila Beach assisting with the cleanup and restoration of that beautiful town.
We’ve been at Vandenberg for many years handling base infrastructure. Now, we are designing the mechanical, electrical, structural and automation components for aerospace and defense firms that operate there.
Q: What were some of the initial challenges you faced when you took over the business, and how did you meet those challenges?
A: There were many.
Earning clients’ trust at the age of 27. Some of the community’s largest entities were trusting us with their infrastructure improvement and large budget capital projects. We spent lots of extra hours making sure our clients were well taken care of. Surviving our first recession, 1990-92, which we did with no layoffs. Learning to lead while on the job. I read a lot, talked to many community and business leaders. I was also fortunate to have some great mentors.
Q: What have been some key ingredients contributing to the growth and expansion of the firm, and how has that growth/evolution through the years changed the firm in ways that you may or may not have anticipated?
A: Key Ingredients: The people, the environment and location.
People: Cannon is made up of great people: very smart and fun to be around.
Environment: The people who join Cannon are very particular about the group they are joining.
We are not just a collection of people. We are a group of folks that are compelled to focus outward instead of inward. A team that goes places most of us won’t go alone. An ethos that brings out the very best in each of us. We are a company filled with people who enjoy, respect and admire one another.
If you are just looking for a job, Cannon’s not the place. If you are looking to find your team and a real connection, you’ll find it at Cannon.
Location: To live on the coast of California and have one of the most rewarding, challenging careers, is a dream. We get to work in all types of industries: oil and gas, aerospace and defense, nuclear, large-scale developments, education and public infrastructure, all while living in a place people come to vacation. Unbelievable.
Q: As Cannon’s leader, how have you set the tone for the kind of business it is today, and how do you help to motivate employees to do their best work?
A: I don’t do things to motivate people. People motivate themselves. I try to remove things that demotivate folks and create an atmosphere where motivated people can flourish.
We have discovered some things that foster this ethos. The Loose Cannons, our extreme team’s motto, is “We’ll go places together we wouldn’t go alone.” And we do. In September, we’ll be riding 200-plus miles through the redwoods of Northern California. Our Well Worth It campaign is fantastic. I’m uplifted by the outpouring of support this program, in its sixth year, gets from our folks. It’s become an enduring and uniting cause within Cannon and the community. This year is big. We are shooting to put wells in five villages that will serve close to 1,250 people.
Q: What or who do you look to for inspiration or motivation?
A: Sometimes I’m looking for it and sometimes it just happens. I find it in the people around me, nature, books, movies and life experiences. I find inspiration in elegance, whether it is in nature or in a solution. True elegance is inspiring: simple, refined, harmonious and appropriate.
Q: What about competition? How much has it grown over the years?
A: When I first started, this community was relatively underserved. Now, there are many consulting firms in the county or coming to the county. Competition is fierce, multi-fold and sophisticated. We are fortunate in that we attract the best and the brightest people. That gives Cannon an advantage.
Q: How has SLO County’s growing tech industry had an impact on the firm and business in general?
A: Thankfully, tech firms are finally here to stay. They have and will create opportunities for all businesses in the community.
Q: If you had to change anything in your professional life, what would it be?
A: If I could truly change anything, it would have been positioning us better to handle the Great Recession. We weathered that event, but we laid off about 30 really good people. Cannon is a family. It hurts when someone leaves. If I could make a wish and not have had to make those hard choices, I would in a heartbeat.
Q: What are the firm’s future plans? Any moves, expansions or additional hiring to come?
A: If you want to keep good people, you have to grow. At the same time, if you’re growing too fast, you start to lose your strength and who you are. But you have to grow fast enough so that people have a chance to grow. Our desire to continue to work with clients on challenging projects means growing our capabilities as a firm, growing the capabilities of our folks, growing our numbers, growing the number of places we work. We are actively pursuing acquisitions in markets and geographies where clients need and want us. So yes, we intend to continue to grow here and in all of our locations.
Title: President and chief executive officer
Company: Cannon Corp. Engineering Consultants, founded in 1976. The multidisciplinary consulting firm provides solutions to clients in public infrastructure, oil and gas industries, aerospace and defense, development and academic institutions.
Corporate address: 1050 Southwood Drive, San Luis Obispo, with offices in Santa Monica and Bakersfield, Ontario and Santa Barbara
Company ownership: Cannon and many others
No. of employees: About 140
Financials: Declined to disclose
Family: Cannon has three adult children: Jessica, Travis and Stephanie
City of residence: Edna Valley