“I think we’ll come out of this stronger than ever,” says Jo Wright, one of the managing partners at architects Feilden Clegg Bradley (FCB). That’s not what you’re hearing from many business leaders – though I’m impressed by how many entrepreneurs share her view. “I think we’re communicating better because we have to. We don’t tiptoe around issues. We’re getting a lot of home truths out on the table,” says Jo.
Like so many firms, FCB had one of its best years ever in 2008. It won the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize and was named BD Masterplanning Architects of the Year. The company regularly features on the Sunday Times list of the Best Companies to Work For. These are all remarkable achievements for a firm headquartered not in London or New York, but Bath.
But even a long string of successes and accolades can’t shield them from building commissions drying up or, critical to a firm that’s built so many educational buildings, the government’s slowing down of its aggressive building programme. Because architecture is a global profession, one unforeseen consequence of the downturn has been that competition around the world has heated up. “Now you’re seeing major global firms competing for often quite small European commissions that they wouldn’t have considered before,” says Jo.
So what’s keeping her so cheerful? “As a firm, we’ve always cleaved to our values. We design buildings that are useful, environmentally friendly and sensitive to their environment. And that’s the way we’ve built the company, too. We put a lot of time and attention into making sure that people are well looked after, that they understand the context in which we work.”
People love working at FCB because there’s a lot of opportunity to develop. But nowadays, what they like is seeing those values remaining constant under pressure.“We provide lunch for everyone who works here. It’s a nice perk. But what it does to build morale and improve communication is far more valuable than what it costs us.”
Jo’s excited by what she feels is the firm’s return to a start-up mentality. Though driven more by necessity than choice, she feels it’s injected new vigour, and rigour, into the way everyone thinks about money.
She also thinks it’s forced the firm to think about what they stand for: “We can’t just go after cash. If we did that, it would destroy us. And here’s why: it takes three to five years to win a commission, build it and then get the recognition it may attract. That is a very long trail. If we started building just for quick cash, it wouldn’t enhance our reputation five years from now.”
What I find so impressive about FCB’s approach is that they haven’t been panicked into short-term thinking or cynical short cuts. In the face of global panic, they demonstrate a sense of urgency but they also recognise that moments like these are a test. Talking about values, and demonstrating them, is easy in boom times. It’s when times are hard that employees and clients see what you’re really made of.
FCB and many firms like them are demonstrating that what matters isn’t what you sell, but what you stand for. The purpose of your company should remain the same in good times and bad – even if the ways you find to answer that purpose may have to adjust.
If you stick to your values, look after your people and your clients, you’ll be in good shape for a recovery. This doesn’t (alas) obviate the need for hard financial choices. But every budget cut says something about your company’s values.
Jo says one reason her firm thinks long term can be explained by the nature of their business: their buildings have to last. I’d say it was the other way: it is thinking long term that ensures you last.