The One And Only
Gensler, the world's biggest design firm, turns 40
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 11/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
In 1965, Arthur Gensler opened the doors of his first studio, at 555 Clay Street in San Francisco. With the help of his wife, Drucilla Gensler, and a fellow architect, Jim Follet, M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates Architects was born. Gensler's first client was Don Wudtke, a Cornell University classmate who happened to be the development manager for San Francisco's Alcoa Building. When Wudtke asked Gensler to take on some tenant improvements, he responded, "What's that?" Followed quickly by: "I'll try it."
With that initial project, the concept of corporate interior design began changing. Gensler was among a new breed of architects who de-emphasized space planning and instead approached architecture from the inside out. "Only a few firms were doing it at the time," he remarks. Fast-forward to today, when followers are many, but Gensler remains in the lead.
Bare facts first. Number one on Interior Design's Giants list since 1980, Gensler has 28 offices, four of them international. Annually, some 2,000 employees complete 4,000 jobs for 1,700 clients. Gross revenues for fiscal 2004-2005 were $331 million on fee revenues of $235 million. Next year's projected gross is $400 million, with a $50 million boost in fees. Leading the charge are 120 principals and a 12-member board of directors that develops strategy. And September 2005 marked a rite of passage: Gensler himself ceded his position as CEO to three executive directors. "It's time for the next group, but I'm not going away," says Gensler, who remains chairman. "I still plan to collect a paycheck."
The trio at the helm is composed of the Los Angeles office's Andy Cohen and David Gensler (a son) and Diane Hoskins from Washington, D.C. Each has jurisdiction over a particular discipline as well as a geographic region. "One of the realities Art faced over the past five to 10 years was that the firm had become too complex for him to continue leading it alone," David Gensler says. Cohen, in the Southwest, oversees design and client development. Hoskins manages the firm's practices, educational initiatives, and anything related to the Southeast. David Gensler, with his background in finance and management consulting, takes the lead on questions of firm-wide resources and infrastructure in addition to all projects in Asia and Europe.
Through boom and bust years, particularly following 9/11, superior design has sustained the firm at number one. It's a four-pronged approach involving both process and execution. First comes "experiential design," with Gensler getting inside a client's head to analyze tools and operations. Research leads to the big, strategic idea "to make sure our design delivers," Cohen says. "Part of this phase is creating a visceral experience and provocative stories, something we learned by doing theme parks and offices for Disney." In the second phase, "thoughtful impact," Gensler measures design effectiveness. In retail, is revenue up? In the corporate arena, is personnel turnover down? For this stage, Gensler calls on its internal consulting group, about 75 strong, to develop research on, for example, whether certain workspaces could increase productivity. (While an intrinsic project component, these metrics can also generate added revenue, depending on the client.) The third component, "excellent delivery," focuses on what Gensler considers to be a three-legged stool: design, project management, and technical features, equally balanced. Finally, "ethical design," an umbrella that covers sustainability and other issues, is built-in across the board, whether a project is LEED-designated or not.
In fact, Gensler helped to develop LEED certification guidelines for several project types, including core-and-shell structures—and helped to make the rating a real-estate marketing tool. The firm also boasts three LEED firsts: a retail rollout prototype (PNC Bank), an airport (Norman Y. Mineta San José International in California), and a data center (Fannie Mae in Maryland).
Over the course of 40 years, the firm has tackled everything from corporate letterhead to urban planning. "Our unique client base continually takes us into new service areas and geographic locations," Gensler says. Every project aims to be collaborative, exploratory, and appropriate, not to mention extraordinary. Projects that truly shine are eligible to win one of the in-house Gensler Design Excellence Awards, launched in 1998. "We focus on design, not just revenue," Cohen says. "When we do great work, the money follows."
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