CEO of Ware Malcomb (Hot Firm # 21 for 2017), a 440-person international design firm based in Irvine, California.
By Liisa Andreassen
“Succession planning has been an important part of our culture for more than 30 years,” Armstrong says. “It takes a lot of hard work and planning to identify the next leadership team. The succession plan needs consistent consultation with trusted advisors such as lawyers, accountants, and insurance agents.”
A CONVERSATION WITH LAWRENCE ARMSTRONG.
The Zweig Letter: What’s your policy on sharing the firm’s financials with your staff? Weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually? And how far down into the org chart is financial information shared?
Lawrence Armstrong: Our policy is to remain transparent with our staff since they are the backbone of our success. We are proud to be a fiscally conservative company. We strive to adopt best practices for conservative business operations for the health of the company, our clients, and staff. This mindset also provides resiliency during economic downturns.
On a biannual basis, we share revenue goals and progress with the entire company.
Leadership meetings are held three times a year with leaders from our 22 offices across North America to share companywide progress, financial updates, and best practices. Additionally, on a monthly basis, the executive team engages with each office to discuss financials and operations in their respective region.
We are proud of the success of our business and don’t shy away from talking about it. It’s important to all of our leaders to share information about the health of the company with our dedicated staff.
TZL: Zweig Group research shows there has been a shift in business development strategies. More and more, technical staff, not marketing staff, are responsible for BD. What’s the BD formula in your firm?
LA: Our business development strategy has always centered on the technical staff leading the BD. Our marketing team has always been a strategic, in-house asset supporting BD objectives. We have found this is the most effective formula to build our business.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
LA: Ware Malcomb has been focused on diversification since the ‘90s. When we initially expanded to four offices in 1990, we focused on interior growth and continued firm diversification. It’s great to see all of the hard work pay off. Today, I’m proud to share that we are ranked No. 27 on Interior Design magazine’s Top 100 Giants.
Our firm-wide focus on diversification remains within the corporate and commercial real estate umbrella. Initiatives also include science and technology, branding, healthcare, and civil engineering design services.
We made a strategic acquisition in 2016 and acquired a Denver-based civil engineering firm, Jansen Strawn Consulting Engineers, to augment our growing civil engineering practice. In May, we announced another acquisition – WorkSpace Plans, a building measurement services company. This addition to the company expands our service offerings and provides our clients with the latest technology and expertise in building measurement.
TZL: While plenty of firms have an ownership transition plan in place, many do not. What’s your advice for firms that have not taken steps to identify and empower the next generation of owners?
LA: My advice for firms that have not taken steps to identify the next generation of owners is to start the succession planning as soon as possible.
Succession planning has been an important part of our culture for more than 30 years. Ever since we transitioned Ware Malcomb from the original ownership, Bill Ware and Bill Malcomb, we’ve been in constant planning for the next transition. It takes a lot of hard work and planning to identify the next leadership team. The succession plan needs consistent consultation with trusted advisors such as lawyers, accountants, and insurance agents.
At Ware Malcomb, our succession planning is also tied to the vision for the company. It has never been about the current one or two owners; we focus on the bigger picture. The vision set for the company focuses on building a 100-year business and beyond. To make that happen you must embrace ownership and leadership transitions.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
LA: Entrepreneurship is a guiding philosophy at Ware Malcomb. We encourage our team members to grow from within and provide opportunities for them to do so.
We have created opportunities and positions in new offices and new business groups, to allow leaders to grow their careers and demonstrate entrepreneurship. We empower our staff to lead their own career growth direction. By providing these opportunities the entrepreneurial spirit fosters business growth.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
LA: Two of the best lessons I have learned are the importance of defining a clear vision of where you want to go, and building strong relationships in business. This holds true whether you’re defining your company’s vision, or charting your own personal career path. I was fortunate to become the CEO of Ware Malcomb in 1992. As a young leader, I was inspired to learn everything I possibly could about the business and have been continuously learning ever since. To effectively lead, you need to maintain a 360-degree view. This also applies to your career aspirations. Know and develop your strengths, and work toward improving in areas where you have less aptitude. Use this all-encompassing view to define the vision that you work toward.
The second lesson I’ve learned is the importance of relationships. The connections our leaders and I have made with clients, colleagues, and industry peers have been very important to our success. Our business is based upon relationships, just like every aspect of the commercial real estate industry. We are experts in design for commercial real estate and really understand our clients’ business. We look to help them be successful at attaining their goals, which may include introducing them to other contacts to foster new relationships and business synergies.
TZL: While M&A is always an option, there’s something to be said about organic growth. What are your thoughts on why and how to grow a firm?
LA: Our philosophy has always been to grow and promote from within. We have created opportunities for employees to move into new markets and new disciplines within the firm. I am a great example of this; I had the opportunity to open and lead the Los Angeles office in 1985.
Our commitment to our team members is shown through the average tenure at Ware Malcomb. I’m proud to share that the average tenure of a principal is 15 years, which demonstrates the longevity of the leadership team and emphasis on growth from within.
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