For the better
Adopting a new philosophy brought on big changes—and big successes—at Perkins & Will
Anne Guiney -- Interior Design, 11/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Change is good. Change is inevitable. But is it a smart business plan? At Perkins & Will, the answer is a resounding yes. Since a 1995 reorganization, evolution has been gospel.
P&W prides itself on a flexibility that informs every element of design work, from staffing strength to client relationships. Managing director Gary Wheeler also credits this philosophy for the firm's continued growth at a time when many competitors are static or scaling down. Since 1996, gross sales have grown from $38 to $80 million, with a 50 percent increase in core revenues in the last three years—adding up to a number-six position on Interior Design's list of top 100 Giants.
Like many firms in the mid and late 1990's, the Chicago-founded P&W established or acquired satellite offices all around the U.S., and each one had a particular expertise: health care in Atlanta, science and technology in Boston, etc. At the same time, however, the board made a strategic decision to stop thinking of regional offices as semiautonomous units and began treating the 750-person firm as a coherent whole based on practice group, not region. "We used to partner with firms in other cities. When the work was done, though, the outside firm maintained the relationship," says Wheeler.
P&W now draws on skills from individual offices to make up the best team for each project, with the local office as executor. Work is also shifted from one office to another to protect against market volatility. When Minneapolis was struggling a few years ago, for example, it was paired with Chicago, picking up work until the home market revived. "There's a total interdependence, not competition," says Wheeler.
The second element of the P&W philosophy shows in the way that the firm also accepts change as a given for clients. In dealing with each, the firm strives to come up with a framework that meshes with the company's needs and desires as it adapts to an ever changing economic environment. Design team members begin by "studying the client's DNA, what drives the way a business works," explains Chicago principal Jim Prendergast. "We don't do any drawing for the first months. We listen, study, analyze."
This planning stage has four parts: leadership interviews for the top-down perspective, focus groups involving different management sectors for a lateral view, staff surveys, and user observation. The rich body of resulting information enables P&W to make a "chassis that functions, regardless of what happens," says Prendergast.
The interior of New York's Time Warner Center, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, really put that theory to the test. Seemingly a recipe for disaster, the 750,000-square-foot project has so far involved multiple leadership changes on the client side, plus the attendant cultural shifts and even the recent dropping of the AOL name. Nevertheless, work remains on schedule for move-in during the fourth quarter of 2004. "The concept was so strong—it prevailed despite all the organizational obstacles," says principal John Lijewski. "The real trick is to develop an adaptable design and move it forward."