Our first part of the interview with Jim Dennell, of BCDM, covered topics such as leadership, markets, and how BCDM was established. In this second part of the interview we discuss challenges faced in getting a firm of the ground, learning the business skills necessary to run a practice, and utilizing previous experience. To find out more about Jim and his practice, check out bcdm.net.
ARC: What were some of the biggest challenges that CDG and ZBM faced in merging to become BCDM?
JD: Well there's two things. One is that you start a firm and you grow a firm and usually it's human capital that grows it, from the founders usually. So you have to be everything and everywhere. You're always proving yourself, so it's tough to do everything. It starts off not being bad, a pretty easy thing, but all of a sudden one client turns into two, three, four, and they want it at the same time. How do you even go out and interview somebody when you have to design at two o'clock in the morning? You get out of that kind of studio size, which I think was in the fifteen to twenty range and you had to start having somebody to manage the business a little bit. So those dynamics are a challenge but one solution was to merge and the thought was that it could free up- or one could cover for the other, just sharing different resources so all that load isn't just on one individual, which was the ideal. The thing is, even if you're on the same page ethically and everything, there's a cultural dynamic that occurs. It's like two single parents coming together with kids. The parents can really have the chemistry and everything but you know the kids come up in different cultures with different traditions. In how you merge that, it really took a longer time than I thought it would. The people at CDG- I could just say, "we're going to Mars" and they would say, "Sure." And when we merged, it was like, "What does that mean?" There was a bit of suspicion, so the trust had to be earned and it was always second guessed on both sides. That slows some of the progress of the firm. Now, the opportunities are bigger because you are a bigger firm. So you trade one for another, you know. I had an idea for how projects should run, how you create career paths and opportunities for people, and that had to get switched around. I always felt that you wanted to have, in a smaller firm, a couple years between professionals in their ages just so that you're always mentoring another one and there's always a joint respect. But people get paired up at the same level and you have to work things out a little more. That took up until even a few years ago to get back on the track of developing what I call integrated practice- just integrating all the resources into a team and managing those as opposed to everybody reacting to what the architect says. Everything is shared better now, but before it wasn't. I just saw the integration wasn't there.
ARC: Speaking of strategy, do you or the founding partners have a business background or was it all self taught?
JD: Self taught. Most architects will have a person that manages the books. Usually they’re not strategic business thinkers, they just do what the rules say to do. You know, that's all architects primarily care for, "Keep me out of jail." [Laughs] Personally, I think that's where I fit and why I took over the main part, not that I really wanted to, but I thought it was a strength that was needed to be afforded to the whole. As I've looked back, I didn't know I had an entrepreneurial mind. I'm always thinking what's the situation? How do you make the best of it? How do you turn it into something? Many architects are not versed that way. They're very risk adverse and for the most part they are artisans who want to do what they want to do. I didn't know how to read a financial sheet and had to learn. I think business is pretty linear so you have to just bone up on it and understand it. It's like learning how to use a phone, once you know the protocol is it's pretty easy to do.
ARC: For being self taught did you use resources or have somebody train you?
JD: On the business side, unless you're a trust fund baby or something, you need a bank to bridge your cash flow. So when you join up with a bank they tend to be kind of like a business partner that teaches you some of the things because their interest is, especially if they've lent you money, they don't want to see you go upside down. So they'll want to make sure you've done certain things. But there are services and consultants specific to the architectural and engineering industry that you can hire.
ARC: How have your professional experiences prior to BCDM shaped how you run your practice now?
JD: I think I mentioned my experience at a big firm- it was so big and the projects were so big that you just couldn't touch everything so you got compartmentalized into certain areas. All the projects I worked on were in Saudi Arabia and I never got to see the product and that meant a lot to me. And I was out of the construction side of it; I had an interest to see it built. So that made me think maybe I want to be local and not so big. I went from that to a ten person firm and had the opportunity to touch and do everything. That formed my career to understand the business side of it and all other aspects. So that entrepreneurial side of me made me feel like I could do this on my own and I was ready to try it on my own. Understanding the whole dynamic of management, client relationships, the trades that go into building, and the local dynamic helped establish some of type of framework. Some of the clients I served, Omaha Public Schools and others, when I left they called me. That was a break. I was prepared to do other things to build my own clientele. One opportunity was a huge project and they said they selected me instead of another firm they usually work with and I said, "I'm not going to get in the middle of that." [Laughs] I don't know if it would happen today because it's a risk, but this individual stuck his neck out and recommended my name for the project.
ARC: In terms of size, are there plans for BCDM to expand or do you think the current size is right where it should be?
JD: I think it's right the size it is. We serve a market or niche that's good. I think we can become more specialized which means we wouldn't have all the production. We could be consulting outside of Omaha but we serve a market here and education projects don't get too big.
ARC: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with emerging professionals?
JD: As I see it, people come out and just want to practice. People may lack interpersonal skills or entrepreneurial skills, and strategic vision- this isn't a negative but it's not a strength. Those are key to becoming a leader, an owner, or partner to a firm. It isn't tenure, and a lot of people think that and it's like, "yeah, but you're doing the same things you did ten years ago- in the same way." [Laughs] I think there can be peer pressures or inner pressures that there's this succession and you have to be an owner and what does that mean- if it's not in your heart then don't worry about it. Sure you might be able to make more money, but that's going to just pay for more therapy. [Laughs] I think you need to be a holistic architect, you need to be able to take design all the way to the end. A person who can do that, to me, can go anywhere. But it's also management of people, relationships, and communication. We're not taught that. If I had a recommendation... one would be: whatever your outlet is- church, bars, or whatever- get out and meet people. Keep those relationships going, give back to the community. It's not a condition to have relationships but they help.