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Architects: Do You Have A Succession Plan?

The Ren Building.

If you’ve built your firm up from nothing, how do you ensure it lives on in the future? Succession planning is one of the most neglected areas of business strategy, yet it’s also one of the most vital. After all, we’re all mortal (sssh! Don’t tell my boss), and at some point we’re probably going to want to retire or move on to other challenges. But if you’re the director your name, and your legacy, remains attached to that firm, so it’s important you think about where you want the company to go after you leave.

While other industries have a solid track record of succession planning, architects are often out-of-the-loop. Because the business is inherently creative, architects are often so busy chasing the next client, they don’t have time to think about a succession strategy.

Well, that should change. Here are some thoughts on how architects can plan for the future of their firm.

Your Firm in 15 Years

The first thing you need to do is sit down with your principals and figure out your vision for the future. What will the firm look like 5, 10 or 15 years in the future (I usually find it best not to look much past 15 years, because it’s too far to accurately gauge).

These are the questions you need to answer:

  • How do you want to transition out of the firm?

  • What do you want your role to be moving forward?

  • How will the firm sustain itself and grow over the next 15 years?

  • What emerging markets do you need to target?

  • What steps can be put in place to make the transition easier?

  • What experts are you going to need in the future (because you need to recruit now for who you need in 15 years time).

Types of Succession

Think about how you and the firm want to move forward with a transition. You have a number of options - think about what is best for the company moving forward:

  • The company itself could purchase your shares.

  • Other partners could divide ownership between themselves. You may need to appoint new partners, especially if several partners are leaving at once?

  • You could sell to an external buyer.

  • You could remain on as a member of the board and retain someone else as director.

  • You could merge with another firm.

  • You could downsize the firm before selling / merging or passing on to a partner.

Moving Younger People Up the Ladder

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, a big part of succession planning is identifying those early leaders and ensuring younger, enthusiastic people are moving into the roles your higher level strategists are vacating.

What you should be doing is recruiting now for what you want the firm to be in 15 years time. Give your employees - even your young guys, a sense of ownership in the business. You can do this in a variety of ways:

  • Provide formal coaching and mentoring programmes for employees.

  • Develop working relationships between clients and staff. Get your staff involved in managing day-to-day client relations. Make sure you are not the only familiar face to your clients.

  • Get everyone involved in figuring out what the firm is going to look like in the future. Someone will have new directions or ideas you haven’t thought of.

One Australian architecture firm, Hayball, has set up an employee share ownership scheme. Retired founder Len Hayball wanted to put steps in place to ensure the legacy of the firm bearing his name would continue. The scheme is designed to identify future leaders and involve younger architects in client relationships and other business-focused activities from the onset.

“If key people are connected to the financial performance of the business,” says Hayball’s managing director Tom Jordan. “They’re much more in a mindset of business development.”

Increasing the Value of Your Firm

Typically, in an architecture succession situation, you are handing over your firm to a team of principals. This means that each person in that group is getting a smaller slice of the firm than you had. Usually, you need to increase the value of your firm so that the smaller slices of pie are still impressive enough to keep the principals onboard.

You may also be selling the firm to a buyer, merging with another company, or selling off your share back to the firm. In all these situations, the higher the value of the firm, the more you - and the firm - will benefit.

Think about what you can do now to improve the value of your firm in the future:

  • Get your administration processes in order: A successor is going to want to see a simple, streamlined system, not a mess of paperwork and Excel spreadsheets. A cloud-based admin process will also make transition to your successors easier.

  • Enhance Sales & Marketing: Work on building a core team and great assets to ensure the firm continues to grow. Solid sales and marketing teams will be an invaluable asset.

  • Devote resources to hiring, training and mentoring top thinkers: They are your company’s future.

  • Embrace Emerging Technology: In terms of the tools of the trade, the architectural firm of the future will look very different to the present model. Is your firm on the cutting-edge of what’s new in the industry? Are you in the cloud? Having out-of-date practices and tools will decrease the value of your firm.

What’s your firm’s succession plan? How are you going to ensure the future of your architecture company after you’re gone? Is your legacy safe?

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