Is being the Firm of the Year an indicator of intrinsic quality, or merely an acknowledgment of creative packaging and promotion skills? DI went inside the firm to find out.

For much of the architectural community the news was incredulous. A small, rather obscure firm located in the American heartland of Iowa had beaten out a host of larger, more prominent contenders for one of the profession’s most coveted honors-the AlA Firm of the Year. After the initial surprise of the announcement wore off, the question on many people’s minds was “How?” However, the more prevalent question, particularly on both coasts, was simply, “Who?” With a staff hovering around 50, Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck in Des Moines, Iowa, has never been considered a design giant. In reviewing their portfolio and the supplemental letters of recommendation that accompanied this year’s application, it became readily apparent that they were, instead, a giant in design. But this award embodies more than just good work. The title itself connotes that it is also a paragon in the areas that comprise a firm other than design—culture and management, to name two.

Is being the Firm of the Year an indicator of intrinsic quality, or merely an acknowledgment of creative packaging and promotion skills? DI went inside the firm to find out.

What makes the firm special? The answer received was, “I love being a part of the team…of, everyday, figuring out what I can do to make the firm better or help other people do their jobs more effectively. I feel that I am always making a contribution to the firm and that my efforts are appre ciated and respected.” A principal talking? No-the receptionist. Part of what has made the firm successful was encapsulated by Bernard Cywinski of Bohlen Cywinski Jackson: “…this organization lives by a philosophy which promotes design excellence through commitment and leadership, mentoring and guidance and public advocacy and professional involvement.” John Gaunt, Dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Kansas, called the firm “an exemplar of those values that we wish our students to embrace and to ultimately live up to as practitioners.”

But what ARE those values? Principal Rod Kruse says his firm’s culture is most accurately described by three things: being passionate for architecture, dedicated to being successful as a business and a team-oriented focus.

With such a strong culture, what specific things has the firm found successful in integrating young talent? “Hiring interns who can learn our culture at the beginning of their career, prior to significant exposure to other office environments,” says Kruse, “As well as placing them in positions of responsibility with active team involvement as soon as possible.”

In this era of competitive recruiting, what has been the firm’s recruiting strategy?“Our primary strategy is simply to hire the best,” Kruse says. “We want staff who are not specialized, but can lead in all roles of architecture. Design strength is critical since all aspects of architectural practice affect the final design of the project. We do not have a geographic target area. The majority of our new staff are from Midwestern schools just because we are often able to employ interns while they are still in school with the intent of them joining us as full time employees upon graduation.”

In many firms, teaching young design talent that the real world of budgets and schedules is often very different from the carte blanche of the university studio is often a challenge. How does HLKB teach people coming up through the ranks to balance the design quality vs. profit dilemma? “First,” says Kruse, “we do not think that it is a dilemma. We teach by leadership, mentoring, meeting deadlines and approaching projects realistically from the very beginning of the project.” standards, continues to decline.

Why has the firm has been so successful in terms of staff retention? “I believe, as do others, that this is really a great place to work,” reflects Kruse. “The quality of our staff is very high and we look for people whose individual egos are small. The office team pride is very high because of the quality of our work. All of our projects are viewed as having potential to be recognized as an opportunity to be more than anticipated.

“In addition to the work environment and the quality of our projects themselves, we have a strong benefits program with profit sharing and we are, for the most part, a relaxed firm with few rules.” “In reality,” says Marketing Manager Julie Seeverson, “we’re all best friends. We hang out together. We volunteer together for community service. We each work very hard and are trying to do our very best in our respective jobs. Nobody just works here-they all want to be here.”

With culture so important, it would behoove the firm to ensure that subsequent generations of ownership reflect the founders’ values. HLKB’s strategy for transition is, according to Kruse, under continued development. Its associate system is a step toward ownership and gives management the chance to see potential leaders in a wide variety of settings, with transition based on performance in such areas as leadership, responsibility, work generation, etc.

As a small, principal-driven firm, how is marketing handled? Like a company mantra, Kruse and other principals say, “Our primary means of marketing is providing good service and product to our existing clients. The majority of our work is for repeat clients. Since marketing is just one aspect of a project or architecture in general, those who successfully market work are also responsible for completing it. Accountability is measured by the amount of work that an individual is responsible for as a member of the team that will complete a project.

“In a sense, everyone is responsible for marketing, but the primary responsibility lies with the owners,” says Kruse. “For the most part,” adds Julie Seeverson, “clients just come to us. We’re published a lot in the architectural media as well as places like Business Week. Des Moines is also a small enough community where a lot of the business leaders know each other. If we’ve done a successful project for one company, others want to see how we can help their businesses be more successful also.”

From Seeverson’s perspective, one of the hurdles to overcome has been the humility of the founding partners who feel uncomfortable “bragging” about their work. However, as the architectural press has become more familiar with the firm through the years, editors now seek out the firm to see what’s going on or coming up in the future and plan accordingly.

Looking back, what are some of the management mistakes the firm has made? Knowing what they know now, what would they have done differently? “We should have more clearly educated and emphasized the importance of profitability as part of every project earlier in our practice,” says Kruse. “We have proven that being profitable does not mean a loss in quality of service or design.” He adds, “We should have encouraged staff that did not fit our system or match our expectations to find a better fit in another office sooner than we did. Dysfunctional staff and low morale can be very destructive.”

“Early in the firm’s history,” says Principal Kurt Blunck, “there were many incredibly talented people who wanted to become owners in the firm. At that point in time, we hadn’t figured out how to do that yet so many of them moved on to start their own firms, some of which are now our competitors. Had we taken the time to figure that out earlier, some of those people might still be with us.”

In recent years, the firm has made great strides in becoming a strong business organization as well as a design powerhouse. Kruse notes three areas of focus: increased emphasis that projects can be profitable without a sacrifice in quality of design; strengthened emphasis on being wise with firm expenditures; and strengthened emphasis on being compensated for the services provided and collecting outstanding receipts.

Where will the firm’s focus be in the future? Kruse is quick to say that, for the most part, it will be status quo: continued quality service and a strong cadre of repeat clients, continued recognition for excellence in design and a continued emphasis on profitability.

Outside of that, what will be the most significant management moves the firm makes in the next three years? “Determining the size of our firm based on work availability and our methodology of providing services will be one,” says Kruse. “The other will be the continued development of our ownership transition plan.”

Kruse was asked, “If you were to give three pieces of advice to someone just coming out of school about how to establish a successful design firm, what would they be?” His response? “Work hard, because it takes hard work. Have integrity and respect your clients. Be proud, but swallow your ego.”

What effects does Kruse see the Firm of the Year award having on the firm’s presence in the marketplace this year? “We hope the award will provide opportunities to expand our geographic marketplace and to be considered for project types that we may have not been in contention for prior to the award,” he says. “Externally, it’s really kind of shined a light on Iowa,” says Julie Seeverson. “It’s brought a lot of attention to small firms in small cities. Not only does it make us feel good, it’s good for all of the other firms in the Midwest.”

In her own nomination letter, architect Maya Lin wrote, “I could not have been more pleased with the results or impressed by their design work and their commitment. Over the past twenty years I have collaborated with various architecture firms, both large and small…I have never had a better working collaboration than that with Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck. The firm was very dedicated to my project, working way beyond their normal capacity. They are a firm of great talent and dedication.”

When it was announced in the firm that it had won this year’s Firm of the Year award, the staff spontaneously broke into applause and wild cheering. What had seemed an unattainable dream had become a reality. The reality, however, is that whether the award had been received or not, the firm would have kept on doing extraordinary work with extraordinary people. The only difference is that now everyone knows about it.