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Young and hungry

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 9:28 a.m. February 28, 2014
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Rick Fawley and Mike Bryant are the wise greybeards of the architecture firm they founded 20 years ago, but they leave the office when they want the young'uns to really learn something.

That happens every Friday. Fawley and Bryant, principals behind Lakewood Ranch-based Fawley|Bryant, have lunch catered that day. Then they take off so the staff of 18, including seven employees who joined the firm in the last year, can connect with each other. The employees talk about work, current projects and personal lives.

“The irony of the firm growing older is the staff has really never been younger,” says Bryant. “I think the staff is the best it's ever been.”

Fawley|Bryant, with a second office in downtown Bradenton, will need to pluck all it can from that spunk. That's because the firm expects 2014 will be the year it officially dropkicks the recession.

In addition to integrating new hires and likely adding a few more, Fawley|Bryant executives project annual revenues will double in 2014, from around $2.9 million in 2013 to at least $6 million. That would even be a 33% increase from the firm's boom-time peak in 2006, when it had $4.5 million in sales. The payroll is also nearly back to pre-recession levels at the firm, which provides planning, architecture, interior design and sustainability strategy services.

“We knew coming out of the recession there would be opportunities,” Bryant says. “There has been four or five years of pent-up demand.”

That demand has stretched to other parts of the Gulf Coast and nationwide. Billings at U.S. architecture firms rose in January over December, for instance, according to the American Institute of Architects' Architecture Billings Index. The January index, the first month-over-month increase since last September, was 50.4, up from 48.6. The index's midpoint between a projected increase or decrease in future projects is 50.

On a more local basis, Doug Whitney, president of WBRC Architects Engineers, with offices in Portland and Bangor, Maine, in addition to Lakewood Ranch, projects a robust 2014. Whitney says 2013 was mostly flat over 2012. But he expects gross revenues for the firm's Florida business to increase 20% in 2014.

Whitney says health care, especially senior living communities, and retail, with a focus on discount stores, is behind most of WBRC's predicted growth. Recent clients include Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty and Beall's Outlets stores in 17 states. Says Whitney: “In the last three or four years everything is driven by value.”

Another firm with an increase in work is Sarasota-based Hoyt Architects, founded in 1993 by Gary Hoyt. Hoyt brought on a partner last year, Chris Gallagher, formerly with Sarasota-based Jonathan Parks Architect, to target more downtown Sarasota commercial projects.

Several other architecture firms in the region, of course, either didn't survive the recession or have yet to return to glory days. One notable fatality: Once-prominent Sarasota-based architecture and planning firm ADP Group went from 44 employees and a new downtown headquarters in 2007 to out of business by 2009.

'Turn heads'
Even with the industry rebound, two components of the survival strategy at Fawley|Bryant are straight-up business basics that go deeper than pent-up demand.

One element was to cut costs, from small, such as paper for the copy machine, to big, such as rewriting insurance polices. Bryant says the firm cut expenses 60% in the rough years. “We went through everything,” he says. “We did everything we could.”

The second element was to maintain a diverse mix of public and private clients, so it didn't over-rely on one sector. A chunk of the clients, such as IMG Academy in Bradenton and McKechnie Field, spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, are in the Sarasota-Manatee region. Others go from Tampa to Naples. “We don't particularly specialize,” says Bryant, “but with 20 years' experience I don't know there's a project we couldn't do.”

The diversification also allows the firm to spread its expertise to a variety of clients. That inspires employees to reach for new ideas and go after projects Fawley says “turn heads.” Proficiency in multiple areas even gives the firm a financing edge. “It's a changing world out there,” says Fawley. “You have to be mindful of banks and who will lend money for a project.”

Another element of the Fawley|Bryant turnaround leans more counterintuitive. The firm spent more than $250,000 to overhaul its software in 2007 and 2008, from AutoCAD to an electronic drawing system called Building Information Modeling. The move was risky given the timing and firm-wide effort to cut costs. But the payback was big-time, in that BIM software redefined how Fawley|Bryant works internally and how it interacts with clients. Now it can show off projects through high-tech programs on iPads and smartphones.

“The days of rolling out a set of plans aren't gone,” Bryant says, “but it's really changed.”

Stay focused
While diversification is the firm's mantra, one area in particular has been big of late: the sports and fitness industry. In addition to IMG and the Pirates, other sports-themed projects include an Olympic-rated BMX Track for Sarasota County; planning for a new Rowing Aquatic Center at USF Sarasota-Manatee; and a facilities assessment of Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.

Longtime Fawley|Bryant manager Steve Padgett was promoted to vice president and named a firm principal in 2012, in part to lead the sports surge. Fawley|Bryant itself, much like the sports projects it targets, essentially stems from competition. Fawley and Bryant founded the firm in 1994 after each ran his own small architecture business. They crafted their plan over drinks one night at Lost Kangaroo, a downtown Bradenton bar.

That plan, initially, was to grow locally and then expand statewide. Bryant, a Bradenton native, and Fawley, who moved to Bradenton in 1983 from Vermont, could see a building industry boom was forthcoming. But competition and breaking into new markets, such as Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, proved time-consuming and costly. So the partners re-focused on the Gulf Coast in the late 1990s.

The firm now plans to stay focused on Gulf Coast projects, even during the current growth period, executives say. An aspect Fawley appreciates about the firm's resurgence, past the work, is the hires are more tactical now, to fit the firm's growth strategy. It wasn't that way in the boom.

“I called it the silly season,” Fawley says. “They weren't strategic hires. They were just warm bodies” to cover all the work.

New hires range from the youngsters to more experienced architects like Judd Heap, president of the American Institute of Architects' Gulf Coast chapter. The mix gives Fawley and Bryant confidence in Fawley|Bryant's long-term stability.

“The youthful enthusiasm in the office has elevated the energy level of everyone like a breath of fresh air,” says Fawley, “challenging all of us to the 'what-if' possibilities.”

Stay humble
Some companies implement the no A-hole rule to keep jerks off the payroll.

But Fawley|Bryant, a Lakewood Ranch-based architecture firm with 18 employees and around $3 million in annual sales, adheres to the no ego directive. Co-founder Rick Fawley says outsized egos suffocate creativity, especially from new employees, of which the firm has several. “Architects tend to have big egos,” says Fawley. “But every day I come in here I try to check my ego at the door.”

Steve Padgett, a principal at the firm, is also big on staying humble. “We are change agents,” says Padgett. “And that can't happen if you have a big ego.”

Firm in full
Projects Lakewood Ranch-based architecture firm Fawley|Bryant has worked on over the last decade include:

  • Schroeder-Manatee Ranch corporate headquarters: East Manatee County building, a 33,000-square-foot complex, was constructed in 2006. It's the first commercial building in Florida certified under the Florida Green Building Council Green Commercial Building Designation Standard.
  • Manatee County Judicial Center: Downtown Bradenton project, a nine-story, 300,000-square-foot building, included a parking garage designed to look like an office.
  • Lake Erie College of Medicine School of Dental Medicine: Project, in 2012, was a 130,000-square-foot addition to the fast-growing medical school.
  • Manatee Technical Institute: Project is 209,000-square-foot post-secondary adult, career and technical education center.
  • Student residence and multi-use complex at IMG Academy: Dorm, which opened last year, is 105,000 square feet. Complex includes a spa and athletic fields.
  • Projects under construction the firm is working on include:

  • Goodwill Manasota corporate campus: A 69,605-square-foot project in Bradenton.
  • Darwin Brewery: A 6,400-square-foot brewery and event center just north of downtown Bradenton.
  • IMG Academy Field House: A 40,000-square-foot project scheduled for completion later this year.
  • Country clubs: Projects include remodels and expansions at Tara Golf & Country Club in east Manatee County; Sarasota National Golf Course in Venice; and Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club in northeast Pasco County.

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