Strategy is a funny thing. What works for one firm may not work for another. While some firms have achieved national prominence through an extensive network of regional offices, others have developed a global practice with one outpost. Scott Simps

Strategy is a funny thing. What works for one firm may not work for another. While some firms have achieved national prominence through an extensive network of regional offices, others have developed a global practice with one outpost. Scott Simpson reveals how one firm did it.

Today it seems that many industries, from manufacturing to healthcare to telecommunications, are infected with merger mania. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the latest, biggest deal on Wall Street–who’s buying what and for how much. Mergers and acquisitions are indeed the fastest way to grow a company. The assumption is that synergy comes from size, with an economy of scale that enables an organization to do more with less. This phenomenon can also be seen in the architectural profession. Big firms are getting bigger by acquiring offices in distant locations, such as Cannon or Perkins & Will. Others grow by mitosis–exporting home-grown talent to start a new office elsewhere, such as Flad & Associates or ADD Inc. To expand into new markets and services, some architecture firms may acquire engineers (Einhorn Yaffee Prescott). Still others extend their reach by teaming with another firm for a specific project, and use that as a springboard to attract new work.

All of these growth strategies require resources–time, money and talent. The rewards are there for those who think strategically and have both vision to see the big picture and the discipline to follow through on the details. But what about firms of limited size or with limited capital? Is there a way to establish a national presence, getting the benefits of growth without the burden of a multi-office structure? Is it possible to create a firm of substantial national or even international influence without the complexities of long-distance management?

The answer to this question lies in a well known remark by Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House, who once said that “all politics are local.” Translated to architecture, this means that clients care less about how many offices you have in how many cities than how their particular project is doing. For clients who build a particular project type (retailers or franchisers) having multiple offices can be a distinct advantage, because their needs can be serviced consistently in many locations. For others, multiple offices are a distraction–they want their projects to have a home base and a dedicated team. Creating a single point of responsibility for multiple projects can be a huge advantage, depending upon how the client’s project management team is structured. This is particularly true since the advent of faxes, voice mail, pagers, cell phones, e-mail, and even project web sites means that time and distance are no longer barriers to constant communication.

There are examples of firms which have made a success of the lone office only strategy, such as The Stubbins Associates (TSA), headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Founded in 1949, TSA is well known for projects of high quality design. Despite working in far-off places like China, Singapore, Kuwait, and throughout the continental United States, TSA has never opened a branch office, by design. Though there is no formal office policy prohibiting this in principle, the firm believes that the advantages of better communication and quality control at a single location outweigh “bigger is better” thinking.

Having a single location is not an inhibiting factor in either the kind of business the firm undertakes nor the size of projects it pursues. TSA’s project types range from healthcare to corporate offices to academic work to hotels, and projects come in all sizes, from a $500,000 lab renovation to a $2.5 billion resort and casino complex. Despite this variety, the size of the firm has remained steady at 65 total staff.

If you are considering expanding but are hesitant to undertake a multi-office strategy, there are several tactics to consider. Start by organizing your firm with a specific focus–a market, project type, or client–and concentrate on quality. Become an expert by reading, research, and establishing personal contacts. Once a project is successfully completed, clients are more inclined to invite your firm to undertake the next assignment, regardless of location, because they have confidence in the team. Another factor is technology–making sure that you are equipped with up-to-date computers, software, printers, cell phones, pagers, and an intra-company computer network that makes keeping in touch at any hour of the day easy. You must also create a firm-wide ethic of exceptional client service–making sure that every staff member at every level understands the value of quality work. This means paying attention to all the relationships, both inside and outside the company, that are needed to make a project run smoothly–not only clients, but contractors and consultants as well.

In today’s complex market, there is opportunity everywhere for firms who want to “export” themselves, whether it be overseas, across the country, or just across town. Develop recognizable expertise. Publicize your successful projects in the popular and professional press. Present at seminars and conferences so that the value of your work is widely recognized. Develop relationships with consultants who have special knowledge, because they are often a good source of leads. When you hear about an upcoming project in a distant city or state, make a few calls to find out which firms in the area might want to pursue the project but are reluctant to do so because they are lacking critical expertise. If you have the goods, create a team and swing for the fences.

In short, there is no need to stay small. With intelligent marketing and management, even a modest firm can have a big impact. If you doubt this, think of Fay Jones, an AIA Gold Medal winner from rural Arkansas. Whether you see yourself as a small frog or a big frog, the size of your pond depends upon you.