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Book Review: Designing a World-class Architecture Firm

From the “World-class” in the title, I thought this book is about design, but make no mistake it is all about marketing, winning projects, corporate strategies, organization, operation, business, growth and profitability of HOK with offices in major cities and projects in over 50 countries.  This perhaps makes sense because other than Obata who lead HOK for 10 years all the other CEO’s were from business and management side of the firm up until now that a designer, Bill Helmuth is at the helm. (nephew of the founder)

The founder George Helmuth grew up watching his father’s architectural firm go through the cycles of boom and bust. They hired staff, trained them for each project but had to let them go in the absence of next projects in line.  George was determined to change this vicious cycle and wanted to create a new kind of architectural practice.   Patrick writes at the outset that this book is not about design but the people, stories, and strategies behind HOK.  The book is organized chronologically in 4 main periods under the leadership of G. Helmuth, G. Obata, J. Sincoff and P. MacLeamy (former CEO and the author of the book). 

This focus on business is perhaps responsible for not informing the reader that HOK has also created some extraordinary work of architecture, nor does the book discuss their design approach to seek excellence. However, there is a mention of the design genius evident from the beginning with the Obata’s design for innovative master pieces such as Lampert Airport 1956 (Pat gives the credit for concept design to M. Yamasaki, but completed by Obata), poetry of Priory Chapel 1962, and elegance of James S. McDonnel Planetarium 1963.

Innovation in management, marketing and design has been the hallmark of everything they did from the start of the company.  Helmuth set out a strong marketing plan, but he knew the firm must have strong design and production leaders and invited Obata for design and Kassabaum for production to form HOK in his hometown of St. Luis, Missouri.  Pat summarizes that Helmuth brought in work, Obata designed them and Kassabaum saw them through to completion. George Helmuth was a charismatic man and used his charm for marketing, but this was later to change from Charm Marketing to Knowledge Marketing as the clients required interviewing the project team.  Now every project was a marketing advertisement, as Pat refers to them as “unbroken chain of projects” where each project attracts new clients who wanted the same. 

From his previous partnership with Yamasaki, Helmuth knew that the designer’s ego often gets in the way of good business. All three founders were sons of German and Japanese immigrants and were determined to work as a team together. “They believed in seeking out the very best ideas, no matter who they come form.  They wanted people to check their ego at the door and work together as a team, like a family of talented people.” Helmuth’s vision is well explained in the book. A great advantage at the start of HOK was that they had a healthy backlog of work when they split up from predecessor firm with Yamasaki.  However, Helmuth knew that it is easy to get jobs in good economy and wanted to create a recession proof firm.  HOK’s strategy was:

  • fulltime marketing 
  • find and keep talented architects and specialized leaders, 
  • seek work in diversified market sectors and other cities. 

Later under the leadership of Jerry Sincoff, HOK adopted another key goal to keep the firm growing by getting more job in other cities and countries and by acquiring other firms. Succession planning is more common now, not back in 1972.  HOK implemented a plan to name a successor for each retiring founder starting with King Graf for Helmuth and Bill Valentine for Obata.  George Kassabaum died in 1982 but his second in command, Jerry Sincoff proved to be the right successor. The corporate structure was more formalized under Obata with the Office of Chairman providing the umbrella leadership with individual leaders in each office and market sector.  This was known as HOK Matrix with specialized offices which delivered better projects, contributed to the firm’s reputation and ultimately more project opportunities. 

The growing pains became apparent as the firm expanded with offices in San Francisco, Washington DC, Houston, Kansas City, New York and later in London, Hong Kong, and other cities. HOK leaders wanted to grow but also maintain the culture of the firm as a family so important to the founders. They put to task to remedy these challenges and particularly the profitability that was not the case in all offices. Jerry Sincoff became CEO in 1993 and formed an Executive Committee to provide the leadership in a changing world. The Board of Directors were made of leaders from various offices, disciplines, and specialized market sectors. Managing 29 offices eventually proved unwieldy and HOK consolidated them into 10 major Offices (the Big Ten) who could form their own branches.  The motto was “Get Bigger or Get Better”.  

As the HOK offices were more specialized in markets such as aviation, sports, hospitals, etc. they were seen sometimes competing for the same project. Jerry’s 3 main goals were Growth Above all, Focus on Client and Firm-wide Market Practices. Seeing the offices drifting apart, Jerry set in motion a series of retreat sessions to steer the firm back to a more collaborative culture. This was not so easy to achieve until some years later that changes in the industry provided them with the new tools in a digital era, computers, internet, and emails.

The book offers a good deal of information the readers may enjoy if interested in office operations, cash flow, finances, acquiring other firms and some accounts of winning major projects at home and abroad.   But the most drastic changes in HOK occurred in an era that world changed as well with the advent of new technologies in construction and Computer Aided Design (CAD) and the new sustainability paradigm.  HOK has always been forthcoming in adopting computers, even had 2 homemade drafting programs long before AutoCAD.  HOK has also been an early subscriber to sustainability imperatives and green design. The real change though came in during MacLeamy era with new capabilities in Building Information Modeling (BIM), internet and cloud base communication. Patrick and other leaders at HOK embraced the new technologies and moved to create an unprecedented capability with large data base of all their projects, Intranet and email servers that were second to none.  Another impressive thing they did was to invest time and money in creating a digital data base of all previous projects and images that would be available to all HOK members to access from anywhere in the world. There will always be some gifted designer in the world, but the book reaffirms that the earth under us has moved from an instinct base design to a knowledge base design. 

One useful feature is that every chapter ends with bullet points recapping the lessons learned.  Granted that this book is more useful to larger firms, however, the wisdom of running a smart architectural firm and the underlying principles at work at HOK may be transferable to smaller firms as well. In fact, there is something useful for every businessperson in this book. This is of course a welcome addition to a host of business books written by the likes of J. Welsh, S. Covey, W. Buffett, et'al, but not like this specifically about the business of architecture. The book starts reading like a memoir about not Patrick but HOK. The book naturally reveals no trade secrets but is candid and filled with stories of high-level corporate decisions and strategies instrumental in making HOK one of the most successful architectural firms in the world. 

Loghman Azar,  is an Architect and Urbanist based in Toronto. He graduated from Harvard University and is recognized for expertise in Sustainable Design and High Performance Buildings.

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