What they don’t teach at Architecture School

/ Brian Park / Creative Workspace

Why did it take us so long for the Employee Owned model to emerge? Perhaps the best answer is we needed to rebuild the engine of our practice first, take apart how we practiced, organised ourselves, related to each other and the outside world. That was a painful journey but a journey where we got a lot of help.

The first was from company called Shirlaws and in particular an architect we admired and had worked with previously, Robin Thng who had retired to play the role of business coach in that company. It was some journey, two years of regular meetings of about fifteen to twenty of us where we discovered whilst we knew how to be architects we had no idea of running a business beyond intuition. Robin didn't give us the answer, he introduced the technical aspects of business, the relationships between the parts and the tools which could be used to interconnect these parts.

Indirectly Robin gave us the means by which we could break down our business into the fragments, we called them Centres of Gravity or CoGs for short because the word implied the interdependence of each of these parts. And that was key to our strategy. We needed a way to break it down but also put it all back together again as architecture.

In the creation of that Business Model, Robin made us aware that we needed to explore the idea of succession in our thinking. Knowing how you mean to go on is critical to an understanding of what works today. Not much point having a car if you have no destination.

The idea of rewarding the initiative of all in the office emerged through this long process. The challenge was to find a way of legally and financially making the transfer from the traditional and now obsolete partnership model to this new ownership structure in a world where the historic model of investing in a partnership, was not feasible for architects struggling to make ends meet. In that respect our conventional support at the time, the accountants, lawyers and bank did not understand this all. There was only one model in their eyes and that was to sell, sell, sell.

A fortunate meeting with Brian Veitch, Chairman of Arup Scotland and friend of the practice helped things fall into place. He is an ambassador for Collective Development Scotland, a wing of Scottish Enterprise promoting home and employee ownership of indigenous businesses. Through Brian we were introduced to Glen Dott who provided some supportive business funding and most importantly introduced us to a parallel universe of business support, legal and financial advice for those wanting to explore the employee owned business model. Key amongst these was Ewan Hall of Baxendale, experts in this sort of transition and because we had spent years devolving responsibility in the office enabled us in a year to pass through the complex legal, taxation and administrative hurdles to become last December, employee owned.