- March 13, 2021
Company. Fawley Bryant Architects Industry. Architecture, planning, construction Key. Company moves ahead after the death of its co-founder.
Area architect and entrepreneur Mike Bryant received a phone call in September 2015 from a major client a few days after the unexpected death of Rick Fawley, Bryant's longtime friend and business partner.
The client told Bryant: “We'll wait until you're ready.”
The brief statement was both empathetic and cathartic for Bryant. He knew that despite mourning Fawley's death, he also had a business, Fawley Bryant Architects, with 20 people on the payroll to oversee.
“Rick was someone you can't replace, and we all know that,” Bryant says. “But it doesn't mean the company stops. It just means we have to adapt.”
The story of how Fawley Bryant moved on without Fawley, its co-founder, chief creative instigator and self-anointed rule-breaker, is one part planning ahead and another part seizing subtle opportunities to grow. The Lakewood Ranch-based firm had $4.2 million in revenues in 2015. That was a slight dip from $4.64 million in sales in 2014, but the company remains one of the largest independently owned architecture firms in the Sarasota-Bradenton region. Clients range from IMG Academy in Bradenton to multiple city and municipal governments to several country clubs.
In large part due to Fawley's influence, the firm has a reputation in the region and urban planning community for bold and innovative projects. A standout example is a $12 million renovation and expansion of the South Florida Museum and Bishop Planetarium, which will also reshape several prominent blocks of downtown Bradenton. South Florida Museum CEO Brynne Anne Besio says Fawley Bryant's depth and knowledge of the community allows it to take some calculated risks with new ways of thinking about design and urban planning.
An extra bonus, says Besio, is Fawley Bryant's leaders excel at articulating their vision. “It's easy to have a concept on a piece of paper,” Besio says. “But what Mike and his group are great at is showing us how all of this will work. They take the idea and make it reality.”
Bryant says one key to the firm's success has been its ability to diversify between public and private work, combined with a won't-say-no ethos, where (almost) no job is too small. That could mean redesigning three skylights or an office bathroom, not always museums and country clubs.
“We get excited about the really big projects,” says Bryant, “but it's the small stuff that's really our bread and butter.”
Fawley died Sept. 2, 2015, after a minor illness. He was 65.
Fawley and Bryant were friends first, both running their own architecture firms in Bradenton in the early 1990s. One night over beers at the Lost Kangaroo in downtown Bradenton they decided to form a company together. The partnership worked so well, particularly in a field such as architecture, known for big egos, because each one had distinct strengths, says Bryant.
As the firm grew, so too did Fawley's presence and influence in the Sarasota-Bradenton area civic and philanthropic community. Boards and organizations he served on include Goodwill Manasota and the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. In 2014 he won the Kent C. Schulz Distinguished Alumni Award, the top alumni recognition for Leadership Manatee.
Outside work, for at least two years before his death, Fawley had another focus: He cared for his wife, Coni Fawley, who had cancer. Coni Fawley died in February 2015 — six months before Rick Fawley.
The time Fawley spent away from work to be with his wife, in retrospect at least, prepared the leadership team for carrying on without him. They took on a “What Would Rick Do” approach to big decisions, says Sarah Colandro, director of interior design. That usually required some creative never-been-done-before thinking.
“We had some training wheels taken off,” adds Steve Padgett, an executive vice president with the firm who started working there in 2001. “He was out enough where we had to be more self-sufficient.”
Colandro, Padgett and Stuart Henderson all had taken on some extra leadership roles, with clients and employees, going back three years. Fawley and Bryant, working with management consultants in 2012, designated that trio to eventually be the future of the company. “We were thinking about how to change and grow,” says Bryant. “When Rick passed, it accelerated a plan already in place.”
Of course, being he wasn't extremely sick, the firm was stunned when Fawley died. “It hit us all hard,” Bryant says. “For me it was a 30-year relationship that came to an abrupt end. It was tough.”
There was also smaller, yet important tasks. Like when Bryant came into the office on a weekend to clean out Fawley's desk. He found a notebook where Fawley had written down some thoughts, including a quintessential Fawley line: “Not taking a risk is taking a risk.”
Bryant pinned that note to his desk.
The senior leadership team also personally visited nearly every client after Fawley died. They talked about projects and progress. They reminisced about Fawley.
In addition to the management plan, Bryant says Fawley's death presented a previously unseen opportunity to take a look at the firm's mission, vision and markets. Bryant says one aspect to come from that is the firm plans to launch a new branding campaign later this year, with an updated logo and tiny change to the company's name. On the latter, the name will be Fawley Bryant Architecture, not Architects, to take the attention off the individual and focus on the services.
One theme the firm wants to do a better job of getting out there is the client immersion it does on nearly every project. That includes utilizing the latest in 3-D technology so clients can get a high-tech touch and feel of what the project will look like. It also includes more master planning with clients, not coming in just to design a building.
“The reason people call Fawley Bryant is that we try to celebrate each client and the activity they do in their space,” says Henderson. “What we really try to do is make what they do better.”
A project the firm is especially excited to show off is the South Florida Museum. Firm officials consider it a Fawley legacy project. It includes renovation of the existing 43,000 square feet and a 35,000-square-foot addition. The goal: Turn the museum, known locally for being the home to Snooty, the world's oldest manatee, into an iconic facility with a regional draw that also becomes a pillar of a revived downtown Bradenton.
Besio, the museum's CEO, says while Fawley brought the initial vision, the people carrying on at the firm are doing stellar work. But Besio misses simply talking to Fawley, even about non-work issues. That feeling is common.
“Most people who met Rick had a great experience when they talked to him,” says Henderson. “He was enchanting. He was wonderful. He was a special guy.”
Rick Fawley and Mike Bryant launched a succession process for their firm, Fawley Bryant Architects, in 2013, two years before Fawley died.
Fawley commented on the new hires in a 2014 story in the Business Observer. He was unabashedly excited about the firm's future to “turn heads” on projects. “The youthful enthusiasm in the office has elevated the energy level of everyone like a breath of fresh air,” said Fawley, “challenging all of us to the 'what-if' possibilities.”