Contacts pay off for small architects

The business of building in Colorado seems to be riding an unending climb with everyone still waiting for the roller-coaster car to hit the top and level out. The trend is keeping experienced architects in high demand and creating a competitive market with everyone scrambling to make the next bid.

It also has created an opportunity for architects to more confidently break away from the safety of corporate employment.

Greg McMenamin and Rob Davis, partners in McMenamin Davis Architects, seized the opportunity to make that leap and create their own company in 1996. With 17 years experience under each of their belts, they got bitten by the “I’m-tired-of-doing-this-for-someone-else” bug at about the same time. After 10 months of developing a business plan, the pair received a bank loan from the first bank they applied to, quit their jobs at Roybal Corp. and set up shop in McMenamin’s house in Louisville.

“We literally started this business out of dirt,” McMenamin says. “We walked out the door of Roybal with no projects. We were lucky though — within two weeks two major clients came to our door.”

Both of those clients tracked McMenamin and Davis down, following up on past working relationships when both men were employed by large architectural firms.

“It’s true that people hire people, not companies,” McMenamin says.

McMenamin and Davis rely on this personal connection as a marketing strategy in more ways than one. “We market heavy principal involvement as opposed to the style of bigger firms where the principal gets the job and passes it along to someone else,” Davis explains. “When you meet us, you know we’re the ones who will be doing the work.

“A big firm can have 30 architects, but when a job goes in the door, it still just goes to one or two people,” he adds.

The partners are clear about their place in the process of becoming a successful firm. “We’re still showing that we’re a significant entity that can get a job done,” McMenamin says. “After a while we’ll get the bigger jobs, hire staff and move out of the house, but for now we’re establishing ourselves.

“For retail businesses, it’s a three- to five-year time frame for getting established,” he explains. “In the professional services industry, however, it stretches out longer. We’re looking at five to 10 years as the time frame when we’ll have our roots set in.”

Why give up the dependable salaries and job security with such a high investment of time and money and no guaranteed payoff? Both men agree that running their own firm provides the greatest potential for financial benefits in the long run, whereas the earning potential for an employee in a firm is limited by an intrinsic ceiling.

“We’re also able to give clients their dollar’s worth and be more service oriented than dollar driven,” Davis says.

The downside includes the lack of flashy projects and marketing resources, McMenamin adds.

At the other end of the small firm spectrum is J.W. Miller & Associates, a one-architect shop in Longmont that’s been in business for 17 years.

After years of working in the public and private sector, Jerry Miller decided he could do things better on his own. That thought combined with the appeal of design freedom led him into the world of the self-employed.

“Through good graces, I’m now in a position where the vast majority of my business is repeat clients or referrals,” he says. In the early days of his company, however, Miller relied heavily on his experience as an architect employee.

“I was the first Boulder Country architect. In that position I used to review a lot of proposals and saw what worked and what didn’t, so when I went to bid on city work on my own, I knew what they were looking for,” he says.

Miller also plays up personal touch and responsiveness as the edge of a small firm. “When clients walk in my door, they can immediately talk to the architect in charge.”

He credits his Longmont Chamber of Commerce membership and committee work as the best marketing he ever did for his business. His passion for affordable housing also opened doors and made him a national referral.

“My juices got flowing about affordable housing when I worked on a HUD project in about 1986. When we were finishing up, the family that included a handicapped kid came over to the owner, the contractor and me. The lady burst into tears, gave us a big hug and thanked us, saying we had made her first house.”

In comparison, Miller believes the drawbacks of his independent work are small, but they do exist. He cites the lack of professional camaraderie and design recognition as the minuses. “It takes a lot of time and energy to go after design awards. Bigger firms have full-time people who do just that.”

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