After years of going inside the winning firm, we have learned that, with rare exceptions, the Firm of the Year is much like an artichoke—the deeper you go the better it gets.

The announcement of the Architecture Firm of the Year is always eagerly anticipated by DesignIntelligence staff. Rarely is it not accompanied by controversy or disgruntlement and, though we believe the opposite to be true, the perception lingers that it is “who you know” that determines who wins. After years of going inside the winning firm, we have learned that, with rare exceptions, the Firm of the Year is much like an artichoke—the deeper you go the better it gets.

This has definitely proven to be the case for this year’s winner, Atlanta-based Thompson Ventulett Stainback & Associates. Founded in 1968, the firm has grown to 268 people with annual billings of nearly $59 million. While the design press has done an admirable job of chronicling the firm’s design achievements, DI sought to go beyond those—to get inside the firm’s “skin”—by asking its top leadership, “What makes TVS tick?

Is TVS really a special place, or is it simply driven by a high-powered PR engine? The former, believes firm marketing director Elizabeth Magness. Topping the list of things TVS leaders believe make the firm special are its people. Through the years, the firm has acquired a collection of talent that it has assembled one by one and worked very hard to retain through a variety of tactics—-remaining an employee-owned firm, organizing around an operating model that encourages multiple centers of talent, encouraging upwardly mobile staff to be entrepreneurial in business, design and organizational structure and making key decisions by consensus. Rooted in providing strong design, TVS looks for people who are humble, rather than egotistical and share a strong sense of commitmen,t not only to the firm, but to the client.

As the competitive marketplace of the last several years has seen top talent leave many of their competitors, TVS has managed to hang on to theirs. According to employees, random comments reflect the reason retention is so high:

  • “This is a place to grow and have a greater impact on the practice;”

  • “I like the people and the collaborative environment;”

  • “Young designers are offered the opportunities for experience and development;”

  • “Mid-range architects are challengingly employed on significant projects with enhanced responsibilities;”

  • “Senior architects have accomplished a lot, created a lot, are highly trusted and share the benefits with the broader group.”

But to retain good people, you have to get them in the door and TVS’s recruiting success stems from its belief that the firm is merely an extension of the classroom. This begins with maintaining good relationships with local universities, which has established a reputation that TVS is a place young designers can get experience early, reinforced by heavy staff participation as visiting critics and its internship program. Its studio approach is known for giving young talent broad experience. This is further reinforced as an individual’s career progresses. The firm believes it has an obligation to get folks trained, registered and equipped to benefit the profession as a whole.

The firm’s employee ownership culture brings with it intrinsic rewards. Because the firm is wholly owned by its employees it is assumed that it is incumbent on each one of them to attract and retain the best people in the marketplace. To the firm, programs that attract and retain are virtually the same. One of the most effective keystones of accomplishing this has been its continuing education programs.

Over 30 years ago, Co-founder Ray Stainback participated in the planning and inception of the AIA’s Intern Development Program and the culture of fostering ongoing professional growth has continued.
For example, people leading the firm’s ARE and NCIDQ study sessions are not principals but people who have recently passed the exams. One of the firm’s newest programs, the PM Roundtables, are led by firm principals who facilitate discussions with other principals.

The firm’s professional committees provide a means to serve, develop and invent educational programs that serve the entire firm outside the studio structure. Currently consisting of Personnel, Sustainable Design, Professional Development, Design, Technology and Marketing, these committees are made up of all levels of people from within the firm. There is likely not a day that goes by in any given month that there is not some type of continuing education program going on in the firm. Not only do people enjoy leading these programs but they have paid handsome dividends: the teachers/instructors become more competent, the attendees not only benefit from the knowledge but from the camaraderie, and the organizations or sponsors gain insight into the inner workings of the firm management.

The firm spends a great deal of effort in instilling what it considers to be its core values to young talent coming into the firm. What are those?

  • Serve clients with thoughtful design solutions;

  • Serve employees by affording opportunities for accomplishment, reward and ownership and collaboration;

  • Contribute with confidence and humility;

  • Always ask questions;

  • Pick up the ball and run with it;

  • Be honest in all your dealings;

  • Give all that you have to the project and the client;

  • Teach and train, give guidance gently;

  • Listen more than talk.

Part of the firm’s design-driven culture has been its emphasis on fostering innovation. The firm’s obvious entrepreneurial spirit is encouraged with direction from corporate leadership and, unlike the top-down management styles of many large firms, like its design process, TVS’s management style is also collaborative, where input from all levels in encouraged and acknowledged.

Like every successful firm, TVS recognizes that it is, above all, a business and has achieved—and maintained—that delicate balance between good design and profitability through:

  • Developing a mature project management and reporting process;

  • Maximizing the value of its HR, Marketing and IT functions to enable its professionals to focus on producing good design;

  • Stringent adherence to a quality assurance process that reinforces the balance of design, technology and business for each project;

  • Continuing education for all staff on the business aspects of design firm management through firmwide business meetings, business literacy programs and mentoring at the project level.

While TVS has positioned itself as a national practice by being the “design powerhouse” brought in to supplement the political connections of a strong local firm, the difference the between firm’s approach to marketing strategy and its competitors is simple—TVS actually follows the fundamentals. Group strategy development sessions determine the best bets, constantly evaluate existing and emerging market segments and propose appropriate actions. Commitments are made—and met—to maintain and nurture personal relationships with the firm’s expanding client base. There is an ongoing program to ensure that within each market segment, the team members understand the clients, their business processes and offer solutions that truly support their clients’ goals.

In every firm’s history, there have been defining moments which dramatically shaped or altered its destiny and TVS has many. One of the most strategic was the creation of an ESOP for succession planning, as well as restructuring as part of the second generation of management coming into their respective positions. As an employee-owned firm, there needed to be an awakening and understanding of how that would impact, not only daily operations, but future planning decisions to ensure that the operational model invisioned by the firm’s three founders—a careful balance of design, technology and business—could be maintained. Complementing this has been significant commissions which “put the firm on the map” in particular target or geographic market segments—the Omni Arena, McCormick Place, Philadelphia Convention Center and Atlanta’s World Congress Center, to name a few.

Looking back, there were some management mistakes that the firm would have avoided. As the opportunities arose in the national and international convention center market, the firm did not push to penetrate these soon enough and many hallmark projects went to competitors. Like many regional firms, they waited too long to implement a well thought out strategic planning initiative and, in the words of one firm executive, “We kept our ESOP under a basket.”

As to the future, what will be the most significant management moves the firm makes in the next three years? After much thought and discussion, the management identified three:

  • Institutionalize a strategic planning approach;

  • Cultivate the third generation of leaders and identify candidates for the fourth generation;

  • Aggressively pursue international markets that make good business sense.

Where will its focus be?Continuing to develop the next generation of leaders will take top priority closely followed by maintaining agility in the marketplace, more clearly defined as being able to weather the economic fluctuations of the built environment. The difficult act of balancing growth to ensure adequate professional resources while maintaining project excellence will continue to be studied and addressed, as will as remembering what garnered the Firm of the Year award in the first place—a commitment to excellence in all areas of its practice.

What effect, if any, do firm executives feel the “Firm of the Year” award will have on its presence in the marketplace? First and foremost, they say, it “acknowledges that we have been on the right track” which is enormously gratifying for all those who have participated in getting the firm from where it was to where it is now. Of course, it goes without saying that it will help with recruiting—at ALL levels, as well as enhancing the firm’s reputation on the international stage and providing additional credibility, a “foot in the door” if you will, for potential clients outside of the Southeast region.

Unlike many design firms whose mission is lofty and unattainable, TVS’s is simple and easily remembered:“To provide a framework to serve our clients and to serve our people.”
Its core values of providing excellence in architecture through a careful balance of design, technology and business have served it well. Its quest for people who share its values and mission continues to be met. People who are willing to share what they know, can work together as a team to contribute and commit to each other come, like eagles, not as a flock, but one by one to Peachtree Street.

One might assume that the Firm of the Year award would be heady stuff for even the most humble of practices and that its effects would result in arrogance and, perhaps, the right to fee inflation. TVS, though, is the kind of firm where the president answers his own phone and is genuinely friendly regardless of who’s on the other end. To him and the rest of his staff, this award will manifest itself as a standard to continue to live up to, rather than a laurel on which to rest.