Owner and managing principal of Arrive Architecture Group (Bedford, TX), a firm that specializes in multi-housing residences for individuals, families, and seniors.
By Liisa Andreassen
Tolson has been with the company since its inception in 1998 as Galier, Tolson, French & Associates. Tolson works hands-on within the firm, actively designing and mastering each building’s design concept.
“While we are not our staff’s family, we do try to manage and limit after hours and weekend work,” Tolson says. “We work hard to develop team morale and regularly have events that allow staff to bring friends or family. For our 20th anniversary, we took our entire staff and their families to Walt Disney World. Community and team building is something Arrive takes very seriously.”
A conversation with Marc Tolson.
The Zweig Letter: You’ve won several design awards in the senior living market. In your opinion, what are some of the most important design features to include in this architecture niche and why?
Marc Tolson: The senior living market has changed considerably in the last 25 years. In the old days, projects were very focused on the containment and management of elders. Personal choice and options were incredibly limited. When I started designing for seniors, we began with the idea of it being “a place I want to live.” That simple maxim has guided my career. Seniors want choice, variety, independence, meaning, and beauty. They want to be inspired and proud of where they live. Communities now feature a variety of apartment and living choices; unique and resident-driven dining options from grab-and-go to chef tables; and wellness and fitness areas that rival private gyms. These communities also work hard to promote community engagement with their residents from volunteering to hosting events. Finally, outdoor living has taken off in the last 10 years in senior living. Those who had those spaces have managed the pandemic far better.
TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?
MT: I really don’t see COVID-19 changing our firm’s policy on telecommuting. We’re a smaller firm. We’re a collaborative firm that is built on staff interaction and communication. For our office, we found this is best done face to face. Good architecture and high-level professional customer service are hard to do over the phone or screen. Our clients appreciate this effort. We finished 2020 6 percent ahead of 2019 because we stayed safe, but face to face as much as possible. We’re allowing employees to extend maternity and paternity time off and long-term sick leave via telecommuting. I think the advances in this area in 2020 were beneficial for our staff.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
MT: Our company earns our clients’ trust by being responsible, dependable, and communicative. I strive to get everything the client wants in their communities and buildings, and say “no” as little as possible. We then execute the work precisely; always meeting deadlines. Our focus is on straightforward and direct communication throughout the process. Even with all of this diligence, projects do have problems. I stand by our work even when there have been problems and I have worked to make things right, functionally and financially, many times. This personal and long view approach builds trust and partnership with our clients.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
MT: I am a 500-foot manager. I can and want to see everything that is happening at the firm. However, I don’t get down to the street level on details. I cast vision, delegate responsibilities, and hold our senior leadership working at the 10-foot level accountable. I spend the majority of my time with them. In a design firm, ego and ownership design are real factors. I work to ensure that staff feel connected to their projects and valuable for their contributions to the work. I model hard work, consistency, focus, and responsibility to our team without micro-managing.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
MT: I think there are three. First are the quarterly team bonuses. These are based on team productivity and performance. For many of our staff, this is the first time they have ever received a bonus. Second are Friday afternoons off. We close at noon on Fridays. We work an adjusted schedule to let that happen, but again and again, we hear how much staff enjoys this. Finally, we offer a $2,500 bonus for any new client, new project that they bring to the firm. This encourages them to market Arrive and feel valued and rewarded as the firm grows and succeeds.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
MT: Quality control is a constant management topic we address. The products we produce are drawings and specifications. The quality, consistency, and coordination of these means everything to clients and ultimately the final outcome of the project. We regularly review how we are doing in this area with lessons learned meetings. We try to instill in our emerging profession that quality starts with what they are doing, so we do lots of training and mentoring.
TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?
MT: I had a wonderful mentor when we first started Arrive. I was very competent in design and client skills, but severely lacking in business knowledge. My mentor was a financial planner who attended my church. He truly took us under his wing and taught us business management 101, including the maxim “the money is not yours.” This truth has served me again and again in my role as managing principal. He also instructed us to do everything by the book and get signed contracts from clients. Architects, including myself, tend to be dreamers and a bit naïve to the ways of the business world. My mentor confronted us over and over those first few years with the cold hard facts. I have since paid it forward with so many young people who have worked for me over the years who now own their own firms and ask for my advice and mentorship.
TZL: You’ve been with the firm since its inception more than 20 years ago. What are some of the greatest changes you’ve seen in the industry during this time and how has the firm stepped up to meet them?
MT: Since we started the firm, we’ve experienced great highs and some great lows. The senior housing and multi-family markets tend to get very hot, over lend, over build, and then have problems. We have seen this cycle many times with assisted living and market rate apartments. Though we focus only on housing, we have kept ourselves diverse, continually being in as many sectors of the housing market as possible. We do all levels of senior housing, market rate and affordable apartments, student housing, and town homes. When one area slows, typically the others continue. Another change has been technology; 23 years ago, we were barely drawing electronically. It was still sort of a novelty. Fast forward to now and we literally do everything electronically. We render buildings in pre-design and use Revit to construct the building virtually. These advances have been costly in terms of time and staff. As a smaller firm we have had to discover and implement these drawings, renderings, and management programs from scratch. Part of my job as managing principal is to oversee how all of this works for our firm, then push and pull them into being at times.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
MT: The biggest lesson I learned in business was in 2008, during the Great Recession. I saw the writing on the wall of the downturn in mid-2008 but chose to stay overly optimistic and even deaf to it. We’d survived other downturns in the market sector, including 9/11. I learned to stay ultra-conservative in business. We have worked since that time and are now 100 percent debt-free, including owning our office building. I hired a new business manager who will tell me the hard, cold truth about everything – not just what I want to hear. We keep clients on short leashes with their billings and invest in our staff and technology when times are good. I believe we came through COVID-19 strongly because of these policies.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
MT: We encourage our staff to stay with us in a variety of ways. Pay well from the start and give quarterly productivity bonuses and promote from within. This policy was started about 12 years ago and it has worked well. Our staff know we do this and are regularly encouraged to seek growth and advancement opportunities in the firm. We also promote a family environment. While we are not our staff’s family, we do try to manage and limit after hours and weekend work. We work hard to develop team morale and regularly have events that allow staff to bring friends or family. For our 20th anniversary, we took our entire staff and their families to Walt Disney World. Community and team building is something Arrive takes very seriously.