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Co-ownership can be a successful business model

Paul Finch
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Gensler has been confirmed as the world’s largest architectural practice – and it’s also owned by its employees, says Paul Finch 

The architectural year ends on a high – at least for Gensler, confirmed as the world’s largest practice with more than 2,500 architects and a turnover of $1 billion-plus.

Its extraordinary growth record in recent years is often commented on, but what may be less well-known is the fact that the practice is a form of co-operative. That, joint chief executive Diane Hoskins told me recently, is certainly one of the underlying reasons for success.

‘In 1989 Art Gensler created our employee ownership programme,’ she says. ‘The transfer was motivational – every employee is an owner.’ The result? ‘People stay with us longer, they behave differently, and there are people looking for companies where they can innovate. People are challenged to grow and engage.’

Practice organisation is modelled around studios, comprising teams specialising in a particular building type – so the specialism sits with the team, not the entire studio, which in principle could undertake any project anywhere in the world. The broad areas of interest are ‘live, work and play’, with a recent focus on retail, hotels and stadiums.

A couple of company myths: first, Hoskins points out, while interiors are still a very significant part of the company’s workload (about 40 per cent), it would be wrong to describe Gensler as an interiors firm; second, although 24-hour working is possible, using its network of nearly 50 offices round the world, ‘it is not routine … we believe it’s about being local as much as global’.

Hoskins attributes the near doubling of workload in 2014-2015 to ‘seeing new opportunities in areas where maybe we didn’t look before’, to the effects of globalisation in terms of client/architect relations, but also because of the impact of urbanisation, ‘increasing demand for all of what we do’.

Gensler Birmingham Office Custard Factory Break Out Areas

Gensler Birmingham Office Custard Factory Break Out Areas

Breakout area at Gensler’s Birmingham office

That has led to an approach called ‘It’s your platform’, which partly applies to the freedom to innovate encouraged in the work groups, but which also underlies an offer to clients based on research rather than simply architectural design. ‘Yesterday’s solutions just don’t work, so we have great programmes for staff who want to go deep into issues like energy or new materials,’ she says.

Having been an external judge of Gensler’s internal awards, I can confirm that the practice is certainly self-critical (apparently 5,000 people view the jury presentations online), and believes profoundly in a collaborative approach based on its ownership model. ‘We are not looking to be bought,’ declares Hoskins.

Taking John Lewis Partnership as a model, the nearest thing we have to it is probably Make

Collaborative models are not unknown in the UK; Rogers Stirk Harbour is organised as a trust, though that is not the same thing as co-ownership. Taking John Lewis Partnership as a model, the nearest thing we have to it is probably Make, where Ken Shuttleworth deliberately reversed the normal command and control model in favour of one where everyone has an interest in overall outcomes – including cost control, though that is a by-product rather than an underlying principle.

There are plenty of other examples of practices that have introduced new ownership forms in recent years; and as far as I can establish, none has reverted to a conventional model having made the switch, no doubt because it is technically quite difficult, but also because people seem to like the results. It may come as a surprise to some, but co-ownership does not mean hippy-style anarchy in the workplace, or that no-one can ever be fired. It is just a different way of working.

For Gensler, which still conducts much of its business in the US, the president-elect’s commitment to $1 trillion dollars of infrastructure investment will no doubt have prompted a thorough analysis of opportunities that may arise. Let’s hope that the US government, unlike its new president, doesn’t develop a reputation for reneging on the last invoice.

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