Managing principal at Inventure Design (Houston, TX), a firm that transforms the client experience in design and architecture by creating smart, human-centered spaces.
By Liisa Andreassen
Romero is a technical problem solver who leads with a vast knowledge of the industry. Where many architecture firms focus on projects from the outside in, he believes in designing from the inside out. He says that he chases after exceptional design, his four kids and their chickens, but admits that the order varies.
“’Designing from the inside out’ has been a reminder to design around people first,” Romero says. “I learned early that people are a company’s number one asset. If you put their needs on an equal level to corporate space needs, budgets, and schedule, you can satisfy both while providing inspiring design.”
A conversation with Raymond Romero.
The Zweig Letter: Can you explain what “designing from the inside out” means?
Raymond Romero: My main focus in design has been corporate interiors and architecture. I love learning about and helping other companies. Traditionally, architecture is celebrated and admired from the outside. Just look at most architecture magazines – you maybe get one or two pictures of the interior, and very little shared in the print. So, “designing from the inside out” has been a reminder to design around people first. I learned early that people are a company’s number one asset. If you put their needs on an equal level to corporate space needs, budgets, and schedule, you can satisfy both while providing inspiring design.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
RR: It hasn’t affected our policy on remote work, other than forcing us to formalize our policy. We had been building toward a “work from anywhere” model for the past couple of years. We have invested in our team and our technology by providing the best hardware, software, applications, and training – ramping up over the past year as we brought most of our technology strategy in-house. As a result, we didn’t have an “all at once” shock to our systems. I truly applaud our founding principal (and chief innovator) and our technology director for being ahead of the curve. I think our next move is to really reach out individually to our team and see what pieces they are missing for the best work-from-home setup.
TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?
RR: Right now, six to nine months. But with a heavy portfolio of corporate and healthcare interiors and interior architecture work this has been the norm for the past five years. Those projects just have a shorter life than typical ground-up architecture projects.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
RR: It’s about 50/50 right now. Some weeks the hours tilt one way or the other. It’s mostly my fault because some of my best clients have been collaborators for six plus years and I like working on their projects. When you find great friends in your work, you tend to hold on to them tightly. I’m learning though!
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
RR: There has always been an overlap. Although my wife is an educator now, we met in college and have the same design degree. So, it’s been nice to have someone who gets what the profession demands. And the kids have always been interested in what I do. They love to see me draw at the home office and join me from time to time. I’ve adopted the notion of looking for work-life harmony and not work-life balance. One can consume the other pretty quickly and I have loved ones that know when I’m forgetting about the other.
TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
RR: Listen first. Take responsibility for your actions. Take work off their plate. Treat their money like your own. Be humble, but always remember that you are hired to be an expert at your craft. Have a voice when tough decisions need to be made. Deliver great design.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
RR: Yes, we are. It has worked great. We have worked with an outside consultant to help us navigate our opportunities for the past couple of years. I would recommend more design firms to take advantage of this credit.
TZL: Your company seems to embrace a culture that is collaborative and fun. What are some key ways you maintain and nurture those characteristics?
RR: We have a lot of ambassadors in the office who help maintain and protect our culture. And our office space has a lot to do with it. From my first day, it was described as equal parts lab and workplace. We like to experiment on ourselves. And we are getting better at celebrating the little things! Team meetings celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, accomplishments, and milestones. Our project gong sits in a prominent location in the studio and is a fun way of announcing wins. Our founding principal has even sent one to the home of our director of business development so the tradition can stay alive as we work from home. Zoom happy hours are the new norm. We have also started a new “10/10/10” meeting. It is a voluntary set of meetings where people can virtually meet with their peers and share how they are doing personally, professionally, and how they think the company is doing – on a familiar scale of 1 to 10. Someone even started a book club. I am constantly amazed at the ideas to keep our team connected.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
RR: Inventure has always been a flat organization. This can be refreshing and challenging depending on the people. To help overcome some of the challenges, we have started a formal mentoring program in the firm. This has helped set aside dedicated, focused time to engage our next leaders – no matter where they are in their career. It is a program open to all.
TZL: How do you handle a long-term principal who is resting on his or her laurels? What effect does a low-performing, entitled principal or department head have on firm morale?
RR: Thankfully, we do not have this problem. I love the mix of competition, accountability, and support we have in our leadership. You don’t want to be the lowest on the revenue spreadsheet, but you will always have someone there to pick you up if you have a slump. There are also many ways to contribute to the firm’s success beyond the numbers. Leadership and experience are where a lot of our value lives.
TZL: Can you provide an example of how Inventure has positively impacted a client’s bottom line?
RR: With the joy of corporate architecture there are a couple of early phases of discovery that have always grabbed me. Discovery is full of questions and answers, tours, and finding the future vision. It’s during this discovery that we tend to have the ability to help set goals for the project. Every decision can impact a client’s bottom line. We find ways to improve efficiency in the workplace, maximize existing assets, improve culture which helps with employee attraction and retainage, and how to bring their services/products to market quicker.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
RR: Our founding principal started early. Going back to trust, that has to be the key in letting go, but also in knowing you have the support behind you to lead in your own way or speak your mind. We are as transparent as we can be with about 99 percent of our financial information, all of our banking relationships, and firm operations. The biggest pitfall that I have seen is waiting for “the right time” or waiting for one person who can do all things. Second- and third-generation leadership are usually best shared as the firm has to morph into a new, larger version of itself to remain viable and desirable for the next group.
TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
RR: This is only one of five qualities we evaluate for someone to become a principal in the firm. Leadership, promotion of the industry, technical competence, and personal development round out our list. This list is also ever evolving as the world around us changes. To get technical, we have an associate principal in her 30s and soon will have a couple more shareholders in their 30s.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
RR: Fullback. I don’t mind doing the dirty work and clearing a path for others. Occasionally I even score a touchdown.