All right now
How IA Interior Architects has capitalized on the economic downturn
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 11/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
With 253 employees, 15 locations, a roster of Fortune 500 clients, and the number-four slot in the most recent Interior Design Giants listing, IA Interior Architects thinks big. Indeed, CEO David Mourning launched the practice in 1984 with outsize ambitions: to open a matrix of U.S. offices, simultaneously offering regional proximity and global resources.
The firm's success ultimately derives, however, from a singular mission, to design corporate interiors. And IA has weathered the dismal economy by focusing even more closely on that specialty. "Our growth peak was just prior to 9/11. Within 90 days, our gross billing plummeted 25 percent," says Mourning. "But the recession made us return to our core business—and get out of services that had no legs, like workplace consulting." These moves, he contends, have paid off, especially in terms of productivity: "Our billing per employee is now the highest it's ever been."
IA's strength is human resources. The firm strives to acquire and mold team players. Even while downsizing 30 percent in the 18-month period after 9/11, the firm brokered a number of high-caliber hires. "It's much harder to hire the best during boom times," says Mourning. Additions such as managing principals Al D'Elia in New York, Tom Powers in Chicago, and Brian Koshley in Orange County, California, have had an enormous impact.
Of course, talent is inconsequential unless it stays put, and IA is a perfect place to do just that. "There's so much opportunity within the structure of the firm—and no hard-and-fast line about what an employee can or can't do. There's always room for negotiation," says Charles Uehrke, design partner of the San Francisco office—IA's largest, at 53.
There's also flexibility in staff deployment. "We don't have a fixed-studio system. Movement and redefinition are based on workload and need," says Uehrke. "Most staff is cross-trained, so we can maximize available resources and remain fluid in responding to different project requirements. We're pretty intrepid."
Mourning contends that a return to an employee-centered attitude will be the turning point in economic recovery. "When firms remember that it's good business to provide a work environment to attract and retain their employees, they'll start hiring designers again. Work environment is a powerful thing—it can enhance communication, promote team- work, and even empower creativity." A lesson that IA has learned firsthand.