Land Matters: Art Gensler Says So

For someone who once dreamed of running a six-person architecture firm, Arthur Gensler has proved rather flexible in that ambition over 50 years as he has grown his firm, Gensler, to 4,800 people in 46 offices on six continents. In the world of design firms, there’s big and bigger, and there’s also bad. But what Gensler has done with his company, which he calls his family, has made it a consistently rational powerhouse of design around the globe. The firm is not leading the edge of the avant-garde, nor does it have the whitest glove in the business, but there’s not a designer of any worth who doesn’t reserve a certain awe for what Art Gensler has accomplished in the quality of his vast operation. Gensler the company can give you a graphics program and it can do the tallest building in Shanghai, and everything in between. I said as much, I should note, to my colleagues when we chose Gensler last year to lead the transformation of ASLA’s headquarters building into the Center for Landscape Architecture, which is expected to open by 2017 (the project starts construction this winter; Oehme, van Sweden is the project’s landscape architect).

You can find plenty of advice in books on how to run a design firm, much of it written by people who have only watched and never actually done it with their lives and those of others on the line. But true experience is the foundation of what Art Gensler writes in his new book, Art’s Principles: 50 Years of Hard-Learned Lessons in Building a World-Class Professional Services Firm (Wilson Lafferty), cowritten with Michael Lindenmayer. He has managed to build a firm of such reach by being not a windy megalomaniac but plain-spoken and direct—a father figure, you could say—with this large family of his. He wrote the book for designers of all sorts, but also for accountants, attorneys, consultants, and anyone who is selling services, where being utterly human is all you really have. The book has its share of repetition and throat-clearing but much more to admire in common and not-so-common sense.

Gensler lays out the basic values that propel his firm—culture “is what people do when management isn’t looking”—but in a deceptively calm voice he also tells you what kind of decent person you should hope to be to run a profitable and satisfying professional service firm (or any kind of business, really). My favorite parts involve the business topics that, among design principals, seem to be semiclassified, owing to professional fear and insecurity.

He covers compensation. Inexperienced business owners “tend to either overpay or underpay,” he writes in a chapter on sharing a firm’s wealth. “They try to please everyone or try to please only themselves.” At Gensler, profits are pooled and distributed across the firm; bonuses are built into budgets, creating the incentive to meet the budget; equity is given, not sold, to key people. Art Gensler is big on employee stock ownership plans to give everyone a personal stake in success. Leaders are paid last, “with me as the very last,” he writes. Profits go first to the back office and front desk. In hard times, “there might not be anything to pay yourself as a leader.”

Succession planning is a hot button—many principals are afraid to talk even to themselves about it. First you have to figure out who can succeed you, and then you have to build connections between those people and your clients. Do so quietly, he says, and not with a big media blitz. “Doing a major public announcement puts unnecessary pressure on the new team.” Considering a buyout from outside? That approach “destroys all you have built.” And I have to applaud his frank advice on mergers: “You should avoid mergers.” They are usually a “threat to a firm’s culture—both yours and theirs.”

Gensler covers much more in the book, including fun in the office and the unpleasant business of layoffs. I began reading the book for what design professionals might take from it, but I kept discovering ways to measure my own habits, and the results were not always to my delight! One of the first things Gensler says you have to figure out is how big you want your firm to be. I’ve heard principals say they stop at 30 people, or that past 50, you’re entering an all-consuming professional management culture. You may want to be six. You may wind up with a family of almost 5,000.


Bradford McKee
Editor
Landscape Architecture Magazine

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