arcCA asked AIA California Council members to relate lessons they learned from former employers but didn’t appreciate until they, themselves, became firm owners. The following stories represent about a third of what we were grateful to receive; we will share other responses in future issues.
Ted Osborn hired me right out of school. I the interview, he told me that he hired people who wanted his chair: he was looking for people to join the firm who wanted to design, wanted to make it work, and wanted to care about the health of the business. A year or two after I arrived, I was in the position of working directly with Ted on a $20 million corporate headquarters in Chicago. I probably never was in charge of the project, although I felt that I was. I know that the client was skeptical of my ability, being so young, to handle the role Ted had given me.
One day, Ted was about to get on a plane to go meet with the client in Seattle. Before he left, he asked for a debriefing with me on a series of issues. He asked me about coordination of some civil engineering issues, resolution of some piping challenges, approach to code analysis, and some material proposals. I responded, preparing him for his meeting. Later that day, Ted called me and said, “Michael, I’m here with the client on speakerphone, and we wanted to go over some issues with you.” He then proceeded to ask me the very questions we reviewed earlier, knowing that I had information to share.
I learned that as an employer, it’s more important to have your team have opportunities to display their competence. My perception of having one’s own practice used to hinge on a belief that I had to know everything. I have come to understand how much pride can come from setting expectations, giving people the opportunity to respond, confirming that they are on track, and then giving them the floor to communicate their acquired expertise.
Michael T. Pinto, AIA, Glendale
One of the most potent and magical ingredients in the business and practice of architecture for me is optimism. Optimism can be ingrained in one’s personality, but is also infectious and can be handed down. In the collaborative process, anything can happen when optimism permeates the team. Reflecting upon my mentors, Richard Brayton and Stanford Hughes, I’ve come to appreciate that they taught this by example.
As a business of problem solving, architecture can easily become weighed down. The optimistic spirit works to transcend this.
David Darling, AIA, San Francisco
From Ted Smith: The key concept of a design can’t be something that can be cut out for budgetary reasons. It has to be integral to the project.
From Mark Rios, FAIA: Good clients make good projects. Their passion inspires us. From Larry Scarpa, FAIA: It’s not whether a problem happens, it’s how you deal with it when it does.
From Mike LeBarre: Trying to do everything is impossible, even though we all as designers want to influence outcomes as much as possible. Sometimes it is important to let go.
David Montalba, AIA, Santa Monica
From Robert Goetz, I learned not to sit around and wait for the phone to ring but to go out there and tell everyone you’re an architect and looking for work.
Larry A. Paul, AIA, San Francisco
At my last “regular job” before launching out on my own, my boss had the secretary/receptionist open all mail along with the other admin tasks. It was a couple of months before he noticed that his bank statements had not shown up. He thought they must have been lost in the mail and asked for replacements. Of course, it was another couple of months before he remembered; by then a sizeable amount had been embezzled. Ouch! I developed the habit of opening my own business mail as a result. I also learned that, if you’re not careful in firing someone (even someone who steals), a wrongful termination claim can add to the financial hurt. OUCH!!!
Michael F. Malinowski, AIA, Sacramento
From George L. Sinclair, AIA: “I am only paying you to draw that line once.”
Dianne R. Whitaker, AIA, San Mateo
I was lucky after graduating from architecture school to land a great position with a small architecture firm in Atlanta. My primary responsibility was to act as project architect for a large custom estate in north Georgia, “act” being the operative word in this sentence. Asa recent, proud graduate of the Howard Roark School of Beauxarchitecture, I may have been too confident in my own abilities and under appreciative of others.
Soon after I started this dream job, our clients came to the office to discuss a number of outstanding design issues. We gathered near my desk to look at drawings and a model I had built. I cannot recall the issues exactly, but I do recall contradicting and correcting my boss’s words over and over as he valiantly diverted my headstrong remarks into friendlier waters and our clients (who have remained good friends) looked on both incredulously and sympathetically (toward him).
Red-faced, he valiantly patronized, parsed, and persisted. The meeting ended, the clients exited, and Richard returned without a word to his office. All was quiet. I returned to my desk; my colleagues were silent before a dead man. Soon, I received a summons from his office, “MARLATT! GET IN HERE!”
The office in which Richard Taylor held court was a large parlor of an old Victorian townhome. I entered at one end to find him behind his desk, perhaps sixteen feet away, in shadow with his back to the large bay window and the Atlanta skyline in the distant background. An Atlanta legend among architects, Richard is six-foot-four with large hands and a larger personality. He has won design awards, sought buried planes in Greenland, and owned bars. He is an avid pilot and even owns his own small plane, which we would use to visit job sites, even when it probably made more sense to drive.
“Marlatt! Do you know what they say about pilots?”
“Uh, no, Richard…” (Where was he going with this?)
“There are two types of pilots in the world! Do you know what they are?” (Even I could understand this question was rhetorical.)
“Those who have landed with their wheels up, and those who have not yet landed with their wheels up!”
His eyes alit, he suddenly laughed, emerged from behind his desk, extended his hand, and bellowed, “WELCOME TO THE CLUB!”
While I stood stunned, but with my appendages and employment intact, Richard took his usual place on the sofa and, with Sharpie and paper on the marble coffee table, began a debriefing of our disastrous meeting. At some point, I sat down. Point by point, he reviewed where I was right but acted badly, where I was wrong (and acted badly), which ideas I should continue to develop and which ones to drop and why. He would speak soon to our clients to explain my impertinence, and the next time we would better prepare ourselves to act as a team. We talked about who is boss, who is not, and why.
I don’t think that lessons are drawn simply and fully from single anecdotes, but this experience clearly set me on a path—upon which I would make many more wheels-up landings—towards understanding that the business of architecture is a team sport. A team player respects his or her colleagues and supports the entire team—including consultants— until there is no alternative. You learn to play your position on the team, or you get off the team. Richard and I were unprepared; we should have practiced what we planned to show and say. Surprising your adversary can be good; surprising your teammate is almost always bad. Time spent watching internal disputes unfold is not billable time. Clients do not need, want, or value posturing and squabbling.
Finally, interwoven with these lessons, Richard’s discipline to keep the client meeting on track when he probably should have just slapped me, and then to quickly turn this entire episode into a “teachable moment,” is an example to which I still aspire in my own business.
David Marlatt, AIA, San Francisco
It was the spring of 1993, the economy was horrid, and the only guy in Raleigh, North Carolina who had any work for a recent architecture grad at the time was a man named Terry Alford. Working for him, I quickly realized that architecture—the business—was a lot more than big sheets of translucent paper and drafting tools and drawings. Night after endless night, I sat at my computer, hunting and pecking through one, two, three, sometimes eight or nine versions of what became lovingly referred to as “documents.” In and out of his office, carrying what I thought was my best work, dripping in fresh red ink, my ears still numb from the volume at which the direction, pleading, and sometimes just plain frustrated yelling was distributed. I lost more than a few girlfriends, who would hang up after the “not going to make it again tonight” call, wondering (I suppose), “Why would an architect need to spend so much time writing?”
Today I am constantly reminded of the value of those long nights. I frequently start my mornings by cranking out contracts, proposals, specifications, keynotes, responses to any manner of questions, etc., only to have “everything else” left to do in the evening. You name it, if it has to be written in an architecture office, I’ve written it: reams and reams of 8-1/2” x 11” paper that I have filled with little black words in my years.
The digital world has changed the face of paper today, but when you open a Word File or a PDF you see the same thing I do: a rectangular white screen with little black words. Printed or not, it’s still paper, and it still says, “You need to read this and know it.” Will your message be heard? Or will it become so much junk mail, fading signals, or brilliant statements bellowed into the wind, unheard or forgotten? Thanks to that first, greatest business lesson taught over so many frustrating nights, you can bet I’ll write it down, I’ll write it to be read, I’ll check it for errors, and I’ll check to make sure you got it.
Michael J. Schulman, AIA, Culver City
One of the main things I learned from my former employer, Herman Ruhnau, FAIA, was how important it was to develop and maintain a positive relationship with the client. The most important aspect of marketing was not getting the next contract, but keeping our current clients satisfied with our performance. To this day, after almost twenty-six years in practice, that philosophy still holds true. Almost 80% of my work comes from existing clients.
In this challenging economy, we find ourselves being sustained, because we have focused on quality service, not quantity of projects.
David Higginson, AIA, Redlands
My second-year studio professor in architecture school told us that the practice of architecture entailed 5% creativity and 95% implementation. We all dismissed what he said and proceeded to immerse ourselves again in our design pursuits. Somehow, his words stuck with me, although I think he underestimated the 95% figure.
>Michael Strogoff, FAIA, Mill Valley
From George Hartman, FAIA: “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.”
Mary Griffin, FAIA, San Francisco
What I realize now is how bad my former employer was at running a business. He never sought advice from outside consultants. He felt he could do all of it himself, and when he got overwhelmed he brought in his wife to help out. They weren’t trained in business, and consequently their business never reached its full potential. They made enough money for themselves, but the company never thrived. There was very little reinvestment back into the firm. Things like training were unheard of. People were expected to learn their craft by osmosis. Innovation or change was discouraged. They, like many of their contemporaries, thought they were successful because work just kind of came in the door. This model has been detrimental to our industry in so many ways, including our ability to produce quality work. I look outside our industry for inspiration on how to be a better leader and businessperson. There is almost none in our industry that I want to model myself after.
Nelson Algaze, AIA, Culver City
Out of school, I was ready to be the next FLW. It was in late 1976, an awful time to try to find work. I walked the streets and took the only job I could find. Thrust immediately into the world of what was then known as “handicap restrooms,” I nonetheless came to appreciate the fact that the firm I was working for really seemed to know how to do a proper set of working drawings.
One day the “old man” remarked, “If you cost less than others, you will always have work.” He was good at what he did and respected client resources. A dozen years later, starting my own business, I remembered that comment. Today it still seems apt.
Sometimes I bore myself with the things I remember, but some of those memories become guiding lights. I took the old man’s idea and made it my own with a twist. Heading toward old manhood in my own right, I say to myself: “Never set your rate so high you don’t have time to do the job properly.”
I usually have work.
Donald Wardlaw, AIA, Oakland
Always ask municipal agencies for more than you want and negotiate your way back to where you wanted to be in the first place. I got that little nugget from my first employer, Paul Davis, when I was right out of school. That was at least thirty-three years ago.
Daniel R Curran, AIA, Monterey/Salinas
As a very young intern in my twenties, I was thrilled to have my first job in an architectural office. The first time I went out on a project with my employer Bob McCabe, he introduced himself at the meeting as an “artist.” I was stunned, because all I ever wanted to be was an architect, and he was one . . . but he called himself an artist. It took me thirty years to understand that being an architect was not the endgame, it is just a vehicle to serve people and contribute to society in many different ways. Bob refused to let the title define him, and it left him open to many business opportunities that were beyond “architecture.”
Bruce Monighan, AIA, Sacramento
Very early on (my first real job in California, back in 1965), the office I worked for in Fremont was very small. One owner, four to five draftsmen, maybe two licensed, but at least two not. One secretary. Very well organized office. One day the boss, Kenney Griffin, said to the drafting room: “I expect that you will all eventually open your own offices. Before you do that, save up at least one year’s salary, because that’s what it will take to get the office working.”
Some years later (in 1976), I opened a new office with a partner, and we had maybe one month’s salary between us. We struggled for five years and eventually closed up because of lack of payments from developers. I knew the risks going in, but my options were limited, so I took the plunge. I think if we’d each had a year’s salary stashed away, we may have been able to make it really go. In the year after we folded, I did pretty well on my own from the business development we’d done over the five years, but there was no back-up for office overhead, and we never had insurance during that five years. Nor could we afford to join the AIA.
Michael Coleman, AIA, Oakland
From Richard Peters, AIA: “Never do business with people who are mentally ill; never do business with people who have no money.” Also from Richard Peters: “The customer isn’t always right, but the customer is always the customer.” And, from George Hellmuth, FAIA: “The three laws of architecture are: 1. Get the job; 2. Get the job; and 3. Get the job.”
Tom McCune, AIA, San Mateo