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Deliberately Diverse

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  • | 6:00 p.m. November 3, 2006
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Deliberately Diverse

Architecture by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor

Doing a little bit of everything has helped a 12-year-old architectural firm pass $4 million in annual revenues. Managing growth and succession planning are the next challenges.

One of the biggest and most well-regarded architectural firms in Manatee County has gotten so big over the last few years, the founders are considering promoting two people to the partner level to keep up with the growth.

And ironically, those founders trace a lot of that growth - in employees, revenues and projects - to the projects they didn't do.

"We are kind of picky," says Rick Fawley, who founded Fawley Bryant Architects with fellow Bradenton-based designer Mike Bryant in 1994. "We try to do signature projects, because that's what creates social change."

Being picky, though, doesn't prevent Fawley-Byrant from being diversified. Recent projects, both current buildings and ones in the works, include a hip parking garage designed to look like an office and the nine-story Manatee County Judicial Center, both in downtown Bradenton, as well as the new headquarters for Lakewood Ranch developers Schroeder Manatee Ranch.

Plus, the firm recently started working in Durango, Colo., where its projects include three fire stations and an 8,000-square-foot spec house, where a potential buyer is an NBA basketball coach. "I never imagined that we would be able to do all the projects we've done," says Bryant.

The new projects have resulted in a slow-but-steady rise in annual revenues and employees for the firm Fawley, 56, and Bryant, 51, founded over drinks at Lost Kangaroo, a downtown Bradenton bar. Revenues have increased about 20% a year the last five years and are expected to reach $4.5 million in 2006. That dwarfs the $200,000 in revenues it counted in its debut 12 years ago.

Back then, the firm had six employees. It now has 20 full-time workers, with plans to hire several more, especially with the expected 2007 opening of its new Lakewood Ranch office. It's never had to lay off an employee, and a few have been with the company from the first day, including one who started with the firm when he was a 16-year-old high school student and has since earned an interior design degree and is working on an architecture degree.

Growing and expanding its reach was both a strategic move to follow the Florida growth line and a personal necessity. Says Fawley: "We're not ready to retire."

Combining forces

Fawley and Bryant recognize that part of the firm's growth stems from the redevelopment and interest in downtown Bradenton. When the firm first opened on downtown's Manatee Avenue, the main drag through the city, the majority of business in town revolved around the hospital, the nearby school board and government employees.

But the last few years the city has grown up. Cranes and construction cones are common now, as Manatee Memorial Hospital is undergoing a $40 million-plus renovation and work has begun on the judicial center, right next door to the Fawley Bryant office. What's more, county officials say close to 1,400 residential units will be built downtown over the next three years, and even through Fawley Bryant usually doesn't do straight up residential projects, more people means more services and schools, projects the firm does do.

The initial impetus for the partnership was competition. Both Fawley and Bryant had been running solo architecture shops for about 10 years, and vaguely knew each other. Bryant, a Bradenton native, opened his own practice after earning a Master's of Architecture from Virginia Tech; Fawley moved to Bradenton in 1983 from Vermont, opening an office focusing on school and office projects.

Sensing a growth spurt that would entice bigger firms to come to town, they decided to work together. The firm, with six employees, stuck to the Bradenton area those first few years and then set out to capture other booming Sunshine State markets, such as Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville.

That was big mistake: Competition and a political climate that could make Southwest Florida's look tame in comparison proved to be a barrier.

So the firm quickly refocused on Bradenton and other Southwest Florida areas and then, learning from past mistakes, it sought outside help when looking to grow again in 1998. The partners hired consulting firm ZweigWhite to guide them in how to grow the businesses - beyond doing diverse and meaningful architecture.

Some of the learning process was difficult, Fawley says. It partially involved teaching Economics 101 to right-side-of-the-brain artist types, but ultimately it worked. Fawley and Bryant began to focus more long-term; the firm currently has a backlog of about six months worth of projects, hedging itself against any potential problems that could derail a deal.

Top competition

The firm currently splits its projects just about evenly among public and private entities. It now does work in about 10 Southwest Florida counties, from Gulf Coast boomtowns, such as Lee and Collier counties, to not as well-known areas, such as Hardee County. Developing a reputation for combining creativity with keeping costs down has helped land projects. "Outside of Sarasota and Manatee," Fawley says, "our reputation is starting to carry us."

Indeed, the firm is well-liked in the building and development community. It's partnered with several entities multiple times, including Tandem Construction and SMR, the developers behind Lakewood Ranch.

The reputation and experience helps when competing for projects against bigger firms from Tampa, Orlando and Atlanta. "I don't think there's an architecture company that we can't compete with," Bryant says. "There's not a project we can't do."

The firm's next big challenge, like many small businesses, is managing its growth. The office in Durango, for example, is a place Fawley visits regularly, for family and change of pace reasons, in addition to work. The firm also opened an office in Townsend, Tenn., where Bryant has done some work.

While Fawley says he and Bryant are having too much fun and are too young to retire, the partners have begun giving some thought to succession planning. They recently began speaking with two employees about taking on more of a leadership role in some projects, to work toward getting to partner level. "We have to take in partners to get bigger," Fawley says.

The firm is also constantly looking to hire new employees. Fawley says he and Bryant interview potential hires regularly, but they are particular about who they will bring on. "You can't have warm bodies," Fawley says. "You have to have good people."

A Plethora of Projects

One of Bradenton-based Fawley Bryant Architects' first major projects was the $21 million renovation of Manatee High School in the mid 1990s. At the time, it was the most expensive school project the school district had ever done, as well as one of the biggest projects in Bradenton.

Since then, the firm's project selection has grown in stature and cost along with the growth and development explosion of Bradenton and Southwest Florida. Through 2006, it's worked on $350 million worth of building designs and plans, including a current one many in the firm consider extra-special: Its new office building in a Lakewood Ranch corporate park.

The building, expected to be about 30,000 square feet over three stories, could be open in about a year. Fawley Bryant's downtown Bradenton office will remain the company's headquarters, but executives with the firm are excited about having an office a mile away from Interstate 75 to ease the commute burden on both clients and employees. The firm also hopes to lease space to people in creative professions, such as Web site and interior designers.

Possibly more important than the use though, is the actual building.

Peter Atsave, whose primary project for the firm in his year of employment has been the design of this building, says the goal is "to make a mark in the cul-de-sac" of the corporate park, a challenge in what's normally a vanilla neighborhood when it comes to building design. Atsave says design plans call for corner and linear windows, as well as a unique wedge shape intended to "draw the viewer around the building."

Other major projects Fawley Bryant has been a part of recently include:

•Schroeder Manatee Ranch headquarters, a $4.5 million, 33,000-square-foot complex for the employees behind the Lakewood Ranch development. It opened earlier in 2006 with features that included masonry wall construction and a two-story front entrance;

•The $25 million, 106,000-square-foot campus of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. Design of the building, completed in 2004, features glass construction, including a three-story skylight;

•The planned $60 million Manatee Technical Institute, a massive project that would cover several subjects in high-tech classrooms totaling 260,000 square feet.


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