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Fresh Start

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  • | 7:18 p.m. January 9, 2013
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Name: RG Architects

Founders/owners: Charles Gutekunst and Ryan Richards

When founded: May 15

Initial investment: $40,000

Sales: $250,000 gross billings in the first five months

Fun fact: The duo furnished their office with two carloads of Ikea furniture.

For 17 years, Charles Gutekunst led the Fort Myers office of Reynolds, Smith & Hills, a large Jacksonville-based architecture firm.

Under his direction, the firm designed high-profile buildings for Florida Gulf Coast University, Edison State College and Lee and Charlotte County schools with a team of 17 people. “Our office was one of the biggest,” Gutekunst says.

When the economic downturn finally forced downsizing at RS&H in Fort Myers, Gutekunst, 62, was laid off. “We were busy through 2010 and 2011, but they felt it was going to play itself out,” Gutekunst says.

While most 62-year-olds might decide to retire and hit the golf course, Gutekunst teamed up with a younger colleague, Ryan Richards, 36, to start RG Architects. The letters in the name stand for the partners' last names. “We just went out and did it,” Gutekunst says.

There wasn't a long time to draft a business plan because the layoff came swiftly, though they hired an accountant from the start. “Going into business when you just jump is the best thing to do,” Gutekunst says.

In the first five months, the firm grossed $250,000 in billings. “We thought it would take a year,” Gutekunst says.

Civil engineers are a good source of referrals because they're among the first to speak with developers and builders about their plans. So are other firms that need help with projects. For example, RG teamed up with Cristina Meyer, the principal of CC+M Design Group, on a country club project.

But Gutekunst is careful not to project early success into the future. “The toughest year in business is not the first year,” he says. “It's the second.”

Long before his corporate career in Fort Myers, Gutekunst had formed an architecture firm for a few years. He was surprised this time around how much more affordable it is, from furniture to insurance. “The experience is that it's cheaper in a lot of ways,” he says.

For example, the duo purchased their furniture at Ikea in Tampa for several thousand dollars, loading up two carloads to save on delivery costs. One Steelcase cubicle at RS&H could cost as much as $5,000, Gutekunst says.

“Online banking is a blessing,” Richards adds. A liability insurance policy cost $3,000, a third of what it would have cost 20 years ago. Architecture software was the only significant expense other than rent, they say.

Gutekunst and Richards saved $10,000 on a new plotter (a printer for architects) because they had given their old plotter to Fort Myers builder Lynn Murtaugh when RS&H upgraded them a new one a few years ago and told them to get rid of the old one. Murtaugh gave them the plotter back when they opened for business. “Things like that just happened,” Gutekunst chuckles.

The two partners used their savings to start the business, avoiding debt. “It's been more fun than I expected,” Gutekunst says. “It was a great thing to wake up in the morning and say this is us.”

For starters, there's no lengthy corporate decision-making process. “I just have to look at Ryan and say, 'what do you think?'”

The corporate fixation on billable hours is also gone. “We're nimble and flexible and we can do things pretty quickly,” Gutekunst says.

To generate business, Gutekunst has visited many of the clients he's worked with in his 17-year career with RS&H in Fort Myers. He's noticed that people have more time to see you during the downturn than at the peak of the boom. “You want to make sure they don't forget,” he says.


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