With this issue, we launch a new feature called “Small Firm Pacesetters” to focus on those firms who we feel are on the fast-track to success.

For a while now, DI readers have been asking us to provide more information that would be as applicable to small firms as they were to everyone else. With this issue, we launch a new feature called “Small Firm Pacesetters” to focus on those firms who we feel are on the fast-track to success.

In 1998, Scott Erdy and Dave McHenry, coworkers and friends at Hillier’s Philadelphia office, separated from the firm for different reasons and decided that they would team up and make try to make a go of it on their own. They had the right mix for success—Erdy would be the “design guy” and McHenry, with his MBA, the “business guy.” They would share the marketing effort . In their four years of existence, though their billings have remained relatively constant, hovering under a million dollars, their accomplishments have belied their small staff size, winning Philadelphia AIA awards every year and securing larger and more prestigious commissions.

Of the firm’s relatively short list of commissions, which one sticks out? “That’s hard to say,” says McHenry. “In some respects we wonder how we will ever top our first project—the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. What a terrific organization and a wonderful client. In a broader sense, we are pleased that we can compete and win consistently against the big firms. We were afraid when we started our own practice that we would have to start with bathroom additions and work our way back up. The reality has been that we have made a successful lateral transition from our former practices.
What has Erdy-McHenry found to be the most effective strategy for competing as a small firm? “Face time!” they say emphatically. “Principal involvement is the one thing that we can offer. We’re not a large firm, yet we have the same expertise and experience that only big firms seem to have. Our attention to clients’ needs and our commitment to principal involvement from the initial interview through to the punchlist is something that the mid-sized to large firms sometimes lack.

As a small firm, what has the firm found to be the tactic with the best marketing payback on the dollar? “The cold call!” exclaims McHenry. “In our first year, after issuing the drawings for Southern Poverty, we poked our head above the water and found that we desperately needed work. I opened my contact database and started calling each individual, alphabetically. I got to a “B’s” and a lighting consultant we had worked with in the past mentioned an RFP that was on the street, open to all firms in Philadelphia, for a new 40,000 sq. ft. business incubator in West Philadelphia. Unfortunately the pre-bid had already occurred the week before and the proposals were due the following week. I called the owner anyway and they agreed to see us. The short story is that we charretted for a week to submit our proposal, got shortlisted and ultimately won the commission.” The project ultimately grew into a 400,000 sq. ft. urban master plan and the firm will soon begin the design of Phase I, an 80,000 sq. ft. office building.

The runner-up would be the series of direct-mail postcards the firm sends out to announce milestones such as new projects or awards. “It takes discipline, but it keeps our name out there,” says McHenry.

Every firm has at least one marketing blunder that happens during their career and Erdy-McHenry is no different. They once went to a marketing presentation for the biggest project they’d ever pursued—the conversion of a 300,000 sq. ft laboratory building into a headquarters for a large corporate client. Upon arriving, they realized that they had copied the wrong 3D files from the server onto the laptop they’d brought with them. They were able to get the files emailed to them, but it made for a rocky start to the presentation. (By the way, the firm got the job, beating out two of Philadelphia’s most prominent firms).

What were the biggest lessons the two took with them from their previous firm? “The importance of relationships and delivering on what you say you will do,” says McHenry. “The trust between the owner and architect is the key to being able to do high quality work. That trust enhances the collaborative process and affords the freedom to explore a wider range of alternatives, ultimately leading to more thoughtful and considered solutions.”

How has the firm integrated technology into their practice? The two believe that technology needs to be integral to the process. It cannot be an afterthought or simply an output device. We have made a significant investment in technology to allow us to communicate our ideas in ways that clients can better understand. 3D computer models and renderings are a part of our design process—not a way to make pretty pictures after the decisions are made and the design is complete. It is a decision support tool that allows owners to make better informed decisions and avoid backtracking. In the end, the process is more efficient for everyone concerned.”

Since founding the firm, what did the two consider their biggest management blunder? The two would say holding onto staff when they didn’t have the workload to support them, was probably not a wise decision. “It really hurt our financial position and threatened our viability,” says McHenry. “Having said that, we make a huge investment in recruiting and developing our staff. Faced with the same circumstances, I think that we would do the same thing.”

As the two look back if they could do it all over again, what would they do ifferently? “In some respects,” says McHenry, “I look back and think, ‘why didn’t I do this sooner?’ At the same time, I know that our success has been due in large part to the experience we gathered from working at other prominent firms and the relationships we established prior to forming our own practice.”

Looking down the road, what do they hope their greatest accomplishment will be in five years? Simple, says McHenry: “To keep our current clients and to continue to invest in building a staff of talented individuals with whom to collaborate.”