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The Architects' Journal

06 April 2023

06 April 2023

Roundtable: Scaling up, diversifying and strategic hiring for growth

How can your practice not just survive, but thrive?

That was the question put to the latest AJ/Bespoke Careers roundtable, which discussed strategies for expansion as practices seek to shake off the turbulence of the past few years and look to the future

The panel
  • Oliver Bayliss, managing director, Buckley Gray Yeoman
  • Jimmy Bent, managing director, Bespoke Careers
  • Lucy Cahill, principal, Bespoke Careers
  • Lanré Gboladé, co-founder, Gbolade Design Studio
  • Julian Gitsham, principal, HASSELL
  • Dipa Joshi, partner, Fletcher Priest Architects
  • Andrew Tate, founding director, TateHindle
  • Victoria Whenray, partner, Conran and Parnters
  • Emily Booth, editor, The Architect's Journal

What’s the best strategy for growing your practice? How do you diversify into new sectors and find the right staff to succeed? And how can practices make use of expert outside advisers to boost efficiency and steer expansion?

All this offered plentiful food for thought for the roundtable participants, who ranged from young, small practices eager for expansion to long-established practices that have built international networks of offices. Central to the discussion was the thorny issue of whether it is better to grow from within or through strategic hires. Both clearly have their place – and most participants had tried both, often with mixed results.

‘Growing from within instils the culture of the business, which is fundamental to everything we do,’ says Oliver Bayliss, managing director of Buckley Gray Yeoman, which has 120 staff across three offices. Nonetheless, the practice recently made strategic hires to bolster working methods and improve the operations side of the business.

‘Because we’ve grown at pace, there were gaps. Not necessarily to do with winning work, but more about the execution of that work or the operational side of the business,’ says Bayliss, adding that it is important to realise that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ – and so be prepared to bring in outsiders so that you can focus on what you’re good at.

‘No longer do the principals who are winning work also need to oversee IT or HR as well,’ he says.

Gbolade Design Studio, a small London practice looking to expand, has been trying to lay the right groundwork for growth by similarly ensuring that its principals are freed up to be ‘horizon-scanning, rather than down in the trenches’, as co-founder Lanré Gboladé puts it. As well as investing in practice operational systems, this means hiring more experienced individuals as well as developing more junior staff.

Source:Phil Weedon
Lanré Gboladé

It can, Gboladé says, be a delicate balancing act. ‘We have to invest in some of the younger members of staff but also be prepared to invest in experience, in people who can hit the ground running and support what we need to get to the next level,’ he says.

Several practices talked about the benefits for staff progression that came from nurturing your own talent, rather than hiring in.

‘We’re always looking out for who the future stars might be, says Victoria Whenray, partner at Conran and Partners, adding that Conran wants to ensure that people always feel they’re growing, rather than stagnating, at the practice.

‘We have tried bringing in people at very senior level, but at the moment prefer to grow from within,’ she says, adding that Conran might look at bringing in more specialists at the next level down.

Hassell, an Australian practice that has developed a network of offices around the world, has tried both strategic hire and internal promotion with mixed success, according to London-based principal Julian Gitsham, and is ‘probably shifting to growing from within’.

Source:Phil Weedon
Julian Gitsham

He adds that Hassell is keen to retain employees who have been loyal and to help them develop to become the next leaders and principals. Part of this strategy is the annual conference in Australia for 25 ‘next generation’ members of staff from its offices around the world. This, he says, makes people feel valued and is a huge opportunity for people who have ambition to become the practice’s next leaders.

In London, the plan is to double the size of the office by investing in it as a strategic hub for the whole business. ‘The quality of design in the UK is exceptional still. We want to grow London in order to train up talent and push it out globally,’ says Gitsham.

Hassell is also looking to further diversify beyond its UK mainstay of higher education projects and has been hiring ‘user experience designers’, data analysts and urban researchers to provide evidence-based intelligence for this.

Practices are more likely to make strategic hires when seeking to grow in new sectors or regions. This can have advantages beyond the specialist knowledge they might bring.

Source: Phil Weedon
Jimmy Bent

‘If you’re doing a new sector or division, it’s easier to hire in. People aren’t threatened. It’s a lot easier to hire in a new person than to say “this person we already have is going to be your boss,” says Bespoke Careers managing director Jimmy Bent.

However, hiring externally must be done in the right way to ensure both that recruits will be a good fit with the company culture, and that there is staff buy-in, according to Bespoke Careers principal Lucy Cahill.

Source:Phil Weedon
Lucy Cahill

‘How the person is brought in is really important. Is this person going to work culturally? They can be the most brilliant designer; but if that’s not right, you have to walk away, whatever money they could bring in,’ she says.

"The recruitment process needs to be communicated well to staff so that they understand how the new hire will add value"

She adds that the recruitment process also needs to be communicated well to staff in advance, so that they understand how the new hire will add value to the business and, in doing so, make the practice more resilient. ‘To bring a person in is massive. Everyone has to have a voice,’ she says, adding that this process could take as long as three months.

According to Gitsham, it helps if the practice is really confident about the investment – and doesn’t lose its nerve. But it’s also down to individual recruits to get people to buy into their appointment. ‘You’re hiring someone strategic. It’s their job to get people to buy into them as well,’ says Bent.

While recruiting externally for key strategic roles can ruffle feathers, drawing on the advice of non-executive expertise can assist growth with potentially fewer difficulties. Cahill says she has recently been placing more non-execs, who have the advantage of being ‘a completely neutral body coming in for the benefit of everyone else’.

‘They’re quite a low-cost solution,’ she says. ‘You’re probably paying them one day a month to support growth and development – or anything you need.’

"There are lessons to be learned from other industries: how to market, sell, create products"

TateHindle likes to hold ‘away days’ with key people in the industry while Fletcher Priest enjoys the benefits of having an external consultant to chair its management review meetings. Meanwhile, Gbolade Design Studio is investing in a business coach to support its strategic thinking and is looking to tap into other external expertise. ‘There are lessons to be learned from other industries: how to market, sell, create products,’ says Gboladé.

As well as making use of non-execs to help with day-to-day issues, Hassell’s Gitsham is a fan of tapping into ‘real thinkers’ from other lines of work such as creative producers, anthropologists, scientists, economists and those in fintech.

‘These people are really interesting to have at the table. They need to be able to challenge and question. You have to accept that their job is to challenge you,’ he says.

Roundtable participants had tried a variety of different growth strategies.

TateHindle founding director Andrew Tate says that, while the practice tends to ‘gently move’ into new sectors, it generally concentrates on what it does best by getting deeper into its already successful markets of residential and central London workplace, and growing either by following people or projects.

Source:Phil Weedon
Andrew Tate

‘We are in two of the best markets. So the best opportunity is to maximise those markets, rather than necessarily move into others,’ he says.

‘Look at what sectors you’re in and make sure you’re in the right sectors and, if not, try to move into them,’ he advises.

Buckley Gray Yeoman has found it fruitful to build on its relationships with existing clients as a way of ‘piggybacking’ into new sectors. ‘One way we diversify is that we look at what those clients are already doing in other areas,’ says Bayliss.

Source: Phil Weedon
Victoria Whenray

Another way to grow is to maximise synergies between existing sectors. For Conran and Partners, this means exploring crossover potential between its established work for ‘live, work and play’.

‘We see opportunities for these typologies to come together,’ says Whenray. For example, Conran is already active in interior hospitality and residential and masterplanning architecture, and is exploring how to ‘join the dots’ to do more leisure architecture and more residential interiors.

Traditionally known for workplace design, Fletcher Priest is finding synergies between its growing urban design experience and its work in residential developments, which partner Dipa Joshi leads. The practice has diversified by drawing on its different sectors to create a more mixed-use offer. Boosting its interiors team has enabled it to win interior fit-outs as well, when previously its architects might have worked only to shell and core stage.

Source:Phil Weedon
Dipa Joshi

Joshi is also the practice’s diversity champion and believes diversity can aid growth. ‘When it comes to developing our practice sectors, diversifying our workforce is a strong part of doing that.’

Research is another effective way to fuel growth. Fletcher Priest has been researching several areas in depth, including new sectors such as life sciences, and disseminating the findings across the practice. In this way, says Joshi, it can show new clients that they’re genuinely engaged with their sector.

‘They can see that you’re bringing something to the table,’ she says.

When growing regionally, Conran’s approach is to understand first what skills it already has and then where else these would be specifically valued, before targeting those areas. This led to Conran opening an office in Hong Kong, where it had previously been finding work.

Source:Phil Weedon
Oliver Bayliss

Buckley Gray Yeoman opened two additional offices for very different reasons. Its Bristol office was precipitated by the relocation of one of its best architects, who would otherwise have left the practice. It has grown to 20-strong, and wins work in other regions. Meanwhile, BGY’s newly opened Madrid office enabled it to build on previous work in Spain, and to tap into the return post-Brexit of Spanish staff wishing to move back.

While the practice tries to be evidence-led, there is also an element of risk-taking that comes with an entrepreneurial spirit. This boldness is to be embraced, says Bayliss. ‘Push yourselves and take risks. It makes life more interesting,’ he says.

Author: Emily Booth, Editor, The Architects' Journal

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