How to form a new partnership at an old firm
For an architect hoping to own their own firm one day, there are two paths available.
One is the traditional path: starting your own firm from scratch.
The other is to buy an existing firm, and transition into its new owner.
This second option is less talked about. But with the rate of Baby Boomers retiring, embracing it will become more and more important to the future of architecture.
Leah Bayer and Kate Conley recently took that path when they created a new partnership at the established firm OJK Architecture. They sat down with us to share how it all happened.
Consider the benefits of buying a firm
When deciding whether to go your own route or buy out the owner of an existing firm, think through the pros and cons of each scenario.
“You need to know that if you're getting into this, what is the value add for you?” Leah said. “We weighed the difference between ‘what do we get if we buy this firm’ versus ‘what do we get if we go off on our own or continue with my company.’”
For Leah, Kate, and their third business partner Sarah, it came down to saving time.
“Being able to purchase a portfolio of existing projects and existing clients and continue that work, and bring in more work immediately based off of that portfolio and those relationships, meant that that work was getting done now,” Leah said.
Think about what your main focus or passion projects will be, and how the decision will affect that.
“We weren't delaying the important work that we wanted to do, which was providing additional affordable housing,” Leah said. “Without that, we would have had to build up our own portfolio and break into a space where we didn't have the background and that would have taken a really long time.”
That time factor made purchasing OJK worth it.
Find a buyout plan that works for both parties
The financial piece of buying an established firm can be overwhelming, but Leah and Kate said that there are a lot of options for making sure both sides get what they want.
They worked with the retiring owner Jerry to come up with the right combination of financial arrangements that gave him what he needed for retirement as well as put them on solid ground at the start.
“It took some back and forth and finding that balance and what that looked like, so that it felt fair to everybody involved,” Leah said.
“Ultimately, it worked out that we felt very comfortable, and not like we were going into debt immediately with the company.”
Leah said there are ways to conduct the transaction that provide value to both sides, making it an affordable option for people wanting to own their own firm.
“That's why it's important to have a business management consultant, because they can walk you through those different scenarios and options,” Leah said.
Create a new future for architecture
The path to firm ownership needs to be explored more often. In the coming decades, the future of architecture may depend on it.
Right now 10,000 professionals are retiring per day. In the United States, there are 21,000 architecture firms that will be affected by that.
“19,000 of those are small and mid-size firms,” Leah said. “Most of those don't have enough staff internally to identify somebody to take over. You're left with a lot of firm owners who are looking to retire in the next couple of decades, and not a lot of options.”
In order to keep that wealth of knowledge, portfolios, and clients from disappearing when owners retire, we will need to find ways to foster firm buyouts.
This generational turnover will also present a great opportunity for the industry to diversify its leadership.
“We have such a more diverse working body of architects now,” Kate said. “We want to see more women take over firms. We want to see more people of color takeover firms. All the different flavors of diversity can suddenly become firm owners.”
A change in firm owners will create a sea change in culture that’s not possible when it’s being initiated by employees. There will always be friction at the leadership level.
“When it's your own gig, you're like, this is how we're doing it now,” Kate said.
Continue relationships with founders
A buyout shouldn’t necessarily signal the end of the founder’s involvement in the firm. Sometimes, there are ways to make sure that a relationship continues.
At OJK, for example, the firm’s founder Jerry still acts as a consultant when needed.
“When a project is in construction, there's a lot of history that decisions have been built upon,” Kate said. “I keep him as a resource to ask those kinds of history questions.”
Jerry also made introductions to key players and clients, and showed them around construction sites, which helped develop client trust in the new partners.
“He also is in the process of giving us the full detailed download of the whole portfolio, because we are aware of what projects we have, but there's always that intangible backstory to all of those that we want to really learn and embody moving forward,” Kate said.
Use tech to build a remote culture
OJK has become fully remote post-buyout to allow its new partners and employees to work from anywhere.
To institute their own culture as they became leaders of this firm, they’ve relied on tech tools to get things done and stay in sync.
“There's a Slack channel that's running all the time. There's channels for each project, but there's also channels for cute animal GIFs, your successes, or something you need to vent about,” Kate said.
“It's your whole psyche. It's not just project assignments and work.”
They also use a virtual project management board that mimics the type of post-it planning they would do in office, but has the benefit of tracking everyone’s work and status.
They also use Miro to collaborate on designs.
“The one piece that Sarah and I really brought in is we both worked at a firm in Palo Alto for a number of years that had Thursday design crits,” Kate said. “We both knew moving forward, Thursday design crit is part of the culture. It was our favorite part of working there.”
It’s a way for the whole firm to gather and talk about whatever project is on tap that week.
Welcome asynchronous talent
As a fully remote company, they’ve been able to hire talented people who need non-traditional hours, mainly women in caretaker roles.
“The burden of that, we saw hit women over and over and over and over again,” Kate said. “Women with 8, 10, 12 years of experience who are gold would be leaving these firms, because the firms didn't have the structure to provide the flexibility to keep them. And we're like, we'll take them.”
They see the value of being able to offer asynchronous work to people who have a lot to contribute to the firm.
“People have weird schedules. The way we're set up, so much of it is asynchronous that we can accommodate that, and keep those people with all of that incredible knowledge who just don't have a life that can match a 9-5 firm,” Kate said.
Make space for conversation and collaboration
You may think a distributed and asynchronous team will suffer from a lack of collaboration or transparency.
But Leah said the opposite is true.
“I argue all the time that with our structure, we can observe what people are doing more frequently and have better dialogue about that than in person,” Leah said.
All of their work is hosted in a Google Drive that everyone has access to, and they communicate on Slack channels where everyone can see the conversations.
That way people can poke in to see what projects are being worked on and what’s being discussed.
“You get that sort of eavesdropping opportunity when it works for you and not necessarily exactly when it's happening in an office. Then you can follow up and add on to a conversation,” Leah said.
No one minds the transparency, because it keeps everyone in the loop.
“We encourage creeping and participating and collaborating and asking questions,” Leah said. “Then the team members can come back to that and say, oh yeah. We were having these conversations, this is what that means.”
As people begin to meet in person again, they’ll occasionally use a rented conference room or go to a client’s office. But the majority of work gets done just fine - sometimes even better - than before.
Firms with diverse leadership and employees that break free of 9-5 schedules will be the future of today’s firms.
Kate and Leah’s path may not be seen as traditional now, but it will increasingly become the norm as current owners retire and new generations take over.
Join us on Thursday, April 15th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Leah Bayer and Kate Conley of OJK Architecture + Planning.
Leah is President and Owner of OJK Architecture + Planning. She is a licensed architect in California, Hawaii, and Washington State. Leah has a strong background in creative business design and management focused on transparency and equity, having grown multiple small businesses to success, which she put to the test just prior to joining OJK by founding EVIA Studio, a highly collaborative, women-led, and virtual architecture practice. Leah is passionate about volunteering to improve the profession, currently serving as AIA Silicon Valley’s 2021-2022 Vice President/President-Elect and Chair of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) Experience Committee.
Kate Conley is a Principal and Owner at OJK Architecture + Planning. She is a licensed architect in California and Washington State. Her passion for sustainable design led her to become a LEED AP and drew her to the Bay Area, where she has gained well-rounded technical expertise in a broad spectrum of project types. Focusing first on higher education residential projects, she then pursued flagship retail design opportunities in Chicago and Seattle and commercial office developments in the South Bay. Improving equity and justice in the design and engineering professions is an expanding area of emphasis for Kate, leading her to participate in the AIA Silicon Valley Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force and serve as Events Director for the WIA Committee.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Leah and Kate about firm mergers and acquisitions and running a fully remote women-led architecture firm.
- What Leah and Kate learned having gone through an M&A process themselves in the last 12 months
- How to create transition plans for firm leaders who plan to retire in the next decade
- Ways to engage the many highly capable young professionals available
- What opportunities exist to bridge the gap between leadership generations
- Everything from passing down portfolios and knowledge to providing runway for young architects and rewarding owners with retirement funds