If you run a practice you should already be thinking about what happens once you’ve gone, says Mark Middleton
Some of you are, some of you will want to be, but for those who aren’t imagine that you are the founder of a young practice. You have done well and your practice has completed projects and won awards. You and your business partners, if you have them, are wrestling with your growing business and a world of opportunity stretches before you. At this moment, the last thing you will be thinking about is succession. But you should.
Planning for the future is a critical business activity, but for many in architecture it doesn’t appear to be important. Many practice leaders seem reluctant to discuss or disclose their plans for succession, though it should be at the top of everyone’s agenda. I have always considered that identifying your successor is your most important job. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, having someone good to step into your shoes allows the ambitious to move on in their careers. The reluctance for some leaders to do this could be because the act of identifying your successor is acknowledgement of your professional and creative mortality – we can’t all be Oscar Niemeyer and practice into our nineties. Whatever fuels this reticence, the untimely deaths of Jim Stirling and Zaha Hadid illustrate why plans are necessary.
If you are thinking about it, the first thing you need to know about succession is that it has two faces. Practice leaders need to decide which they want. You either want the business to continue after your involvement has finished, or you don’t. It might be a surprising thing to say, but some don’t want their business to continue after their involvement finishes. This is usually to protect their canon of work; the Renzo Piano Building Workshop is rumoured to be taking this route. This model has some merit. It is effectively an apprenticeship strategy where architects are attracted to learn with a master without the option of ownership. Many will be satisfied with this, but the ambitious will either not join a practice like that, or they will learn what they can and move on to create their own studio.
The challenge to those who want their practice to move seamlessly on to a second generation is that most of the drive and focus of a practice is centred around one or a small group of leaders who become synonymous with the practice. Usually, these are single or dual name practices which reinforce the link to individuals. Some, like Ken Shuttleworth or Haptic, are smart enough to avoid the link with names or personalities altogether. Some, like Stuart Piercy and Joe Morris, are using “& Company” as a suffix.
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But those with an established name have to deal with it. Chris Wilkinson added Jim Eyre and Richard Rogers included Ivan Harbour and Graham Stirk. At Grimshaw, we took a different route. Nick decided early on that he wanted the practice to continue into a second generation and, when we became an LLP in 2001 to facilitate a cohort of new partners, he changed NGP Ltd to Grimshaw. Nick’s idea was to create a brand of his name with multiple partners operating under the new banner. This transition was completed 18 years before the recent announcement that Andrew Whalley has succeeded Nick as our chairman, meaning that any change could be done seamlessly, with minimal fuss and anxiety.
Structurally, there are many options available to businesses. The current corporate weapon of choice is Employee Ownership Trusts; it was Limited Liability Partnerships before that. The choice is made by balancing the owner’s needs to realise their business value against the price and ease with which they can invite employees to become co-owners. The harder it is, and the stiffer the price, the less likely employees will want to be owners. On the flip side, the lower the return to the owner, the less likely it will be offered.
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Whatever the strategy, it’s completely meaningless without the right people to offer ownership to. The search for leaders and potential owners should be a preoccupation. Opportunities should be given early to anyone who has the talent and aptitude to take on the responsibility. When identifying architects to join you in ownership, you have a responsibility to be mindful of issues around all forms of diversity to ensure that the next generation of leaders is balanced and representative. At Grimshaw we want new partners who can win, design and deliver projects that add to and improve the global legacy of our built work. Not everyone can become an owner, so these choices are hard to make. As well as identifying and nurturing talent, you may have to disappoint some. Whatever choices you make, no matter what the personalities at its head, every practice is powered by the talent within its studio. I believe that in order to keep the brightest and best leaders you have to give them a route to ownership. I don’t think any practice should have a sell-by date for this.
Mark Middleton is a partner at Grimshaw