John R. McAdams B.S.E. '70, M.B.A. '80

June 1, 2004
John R. McAdams B.S.E. '70, M.B.A. '80

As a youngster, I liked to build things. When we went to the beach, I built highway interchanges in the sand." Little did John R. McAdams realize then that his intricate beach designs would become the basis of his life's work: creating land-development plans for shopping centers, college buildings, and residential communities.

If not as romantic as tracings in the sand, the work is satisfying nonetheless. He is the founder and president of the John R. McAdams Company, Inc., which, simply put, begins working with clients before a project even reaches the drawing board and continues through the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

"We're not architects. We don't build anything," says McAdams. "What we do is master planning."

After graduating from Duke, McAdams, a Raleigh native, spent a year working for a construction-engineering firm in Denver. He then returned to the South, the area he knew the best, spending the next eight years with Pridgen Consultants, now defunct, as a consulting engineer.

"I could have become a Pridgen partner, but my goal ever since I was a Duke engineering student was to own my own business," he says. Step one was to return to Duke in 1978 as an evening M.B.A. student. "It was my way to remove some of the mystery out of business."

Although McAdams is not the type who normally wings it, as a first-year business-school student, he quit his Pridgen job and started his own consulting firm. It was hardly a textbook approach to sound career planning, where the conventional wisdom is stay employed, complete graduate school, and then start a business. But he took the gamble, becoming his own boss in the growing land-development-design field.

It was a harrowing period, juggling class assignments while also running a start-up business. "I needed to move fast just to pay the bills," McAdams recalls. "Savings would pay my living expenses for only three months. I avoided a financial crunch by getting some design work. I ached for the day where I would have some leisure time."

Now age fifty-six, he's far from retirement, but, being a planner, he's already looking ahead. "I am in the process of letting other employees buy into the company," he says. In ten years, he anticipates his ownership will be less than 30 percent.

There are now 120 employees in the Research Triangle Park and newly opened Charlotte offices. They prepare site-construction documents, obtain construction permits, and handle the behind-the-scenes engineering tasks before ground is ever broken for the likes of the Streets at Southpoint Mall in Durham, one of the Southeast's newer and larger regional shopping centers; Meadowmont, a 435-acre residential and commercial community still under construction in Chapel Hill; Duke's Center for Jewish Life; and the Doris Duke Center at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

Site planning, in the public's mind, is too often the prelude to stripping forests and despoiling farmlands to create potential urban sprawl. That misperception led to the firm's volunteering its services to the Triangle Land Conservancy. McAdams is now president-elect of the conservancy's board.

"We serve the land-development industry, and we strongly believe in the appropriateness of the 'built environment' and personal property rights," he says. "But we also believe there are some tracts of land that ought to be protected from development, and left in their natural condition."