When J. Peter Devereaux joined the Detroit-based firm in 1985, there were nine employees. Today, Harley Ellis Devereaux (Hot Firm #23 for 2016) has 324 employees and has undergone a series of evolutions. After working in various roles that included corporate marketing leader and principal of the Los Angeles office, Devereaux succeeded Gary Skog as CEO in 2015.
Founded in 1908, it was not until 2006 that a merger led to the creation of HED. Devereaux says that the company has just started to see growth through mergers in the last 20 years. When he joined the firm in 1985, it was HarleyEllis, then it became Fields Devereaux. There was already a strategic alliance in place with Harley Ellington Pierce Yee (the name of the firm before it merged with Ellis Naeyaert Genheimer).
“The biggest evolution over that time was seeing the various office locations coalesce into one firm,” Devereaux says. “We had to build a robust corporate infrastructure of key systems: IT, HR, legal and marketing that served to support rather than control. This has allowed each office to remain nimble and responsive to local conditions. We’re proud that as a firm, we all share the same values, but that the culture in each location is, and should be, a little bit different.”
A conversation with Devereaux
The Zweig Letter: What are your key strengths?
J. Peter Devereaux: People tell me that I have a pretty even keel. I’m not demoralized when things go badly and not too euphoric when they’re going well.
TZL: What are the key strengths for an effective leader?
JPD: Communication skills; the ability to listen to people; and to express a clear vision of the future that inspires people to participate in the journey.
TZL: What’s your leaership style?
JPD: Servant leader. My first priority is to serve the needs of all employees, trusting they will serve the needs of our clients the best.
TZL: To date, what’s been your greatest challenge? How did you handle it?
JPD: Currently, I’m tasked with getting a talented group of individuals to realize their talents. I want to show them just how successful we might be if we can remove some roadblocks from within and leverage their full talents as a team. That’s the journey from being a collection of local practices assembled through mergers to finally coming together to form a national firm. We’ve worked hard to promote the culture of “One Firm” and formed numerous working groups to tackle initiatives that involve a representative from each location. We’ve also worked hard to make it easier to share work across locations and to support staff working on temporary assignments at locations outside their home base. The more time people spend with their colleagues in other locations, the stronger their personal relationships become. In the end that supports our goals for “Design Excellence.”
TZL: What’s your vision for the future of HED?
JPD: We want to become a Great Design Firm. We think we are a good design firm today and that we can do better. Critical Thinking is a process that we follow to deliver value through design and Integrated Practice reflects the collaborative manner in which we organize our teams to deliver it. We value diversity in our interdisciplinary teams and we believe that working together, we will contribute to the next generation of great design in this country.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project of which you’re especially proud.
JPD: The West Berkeley Library. It’s one of the smaller projects we’ve completed, but it embodies a big message about our firm. It reflects our goals for Design Excellence in providing value to the community, our client and project team. It is also a great example of Critical Thinking. Our team didn’t just accept the project as initially put forward, but did research and studied options and then showed the client how the building could achieve Net Zero Energy. It was a pathway they had never considered. This project is also a great example of integrated practice that highlights the collaboration of architects and engineers and what can be achieved. We won our second AIA National COTE award for this project.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to outperform some competitors?
JPD: I can think of three significant projects where we were selected from among a shortlist of the best firms in the country. Why? We fielded incredibly talented teams from across our locations and market sectors. Just a few years ago those groups would not have collaborated, but would rather have kept to their internal silos. In addition, we consistently manage large and complex projects very well – the hairier the better – that’s where we really excel today among the competition.
TZL: Are you married? Children?
JPD: I’ve been married to Sarah for 29 years and we have two grown daughters. Now that we’re empty nesters, it’s almost like we’re dating again.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
JPD: In the early days of the firm in Los Angeles, I designed a home for the fashion designer, Alan Austin, one of OJ Simpson’s regular golf foursome at the Riviera Country Club. That led to the design of a new home for OJ and Nicole at their Rockingham estate. That design was never built because he put everything on hold after she left him following another domestic violence episode. The arc of that story carried forward a decade later when we won a competition to design the $100M Los Angeles Crime Lab which is often called informally, “The OJ Lab” because it was the botched evidence issue at the famous trial that gave birth to the project.
TZL: What’s been a favorite vacation?
JPD: We recently took a trip to Spain. I hadn’t seen Sagrada Familia in 30 years and had never visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Both were great, but the big surprise was the delightful time we spent in the old city district of San Sebastian.
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
JPD: I’m usually reading a print and a digital one in tandem. The last digital was Truman by David McCullough. The last print was The Outstanding Organization by Karen Martin. I really appreciated the concept of taking on “self-inflicted chaos.”
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever gotten?
JPD: Over 30 years ago, the late Anthony Athanas, a client and the owner of the famous Boston eatery, Anthony’s Pier 4 Restaurant, at the time told me, “I’m only as good as my last bowl of clam chowder.” I never forgot that. It impressed on me that you can’t rest on your laurels; you need to bring it – every day.
TZL: Who is a leader you admire?
JPD: Max De Pree. He built a great company culture at Herman Miller. It continues on well after he retired. His book, Leadership is an Art, is one of the best on the topic that I have read.
TZL: What types of activities do you enjoy?
JPD: Long walks in the park frequently interrupted by errant golf shots. Maybe I’ll master that game when I retire.
TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?
JPD: It’s not the food (I like all kinds), it’s good company that I value most.
By Liisa Andreassen