Expansion by Design

July 1, 2001 · by Kerry Harding

DI interviewed Durrant CEO, Ryc Loope about the firm’s recent exponential growth...and what its future holds.

Known recently for its aggressive merger and acquisition strategy, Durrant has gone from a small regional firm to one of the larger players in the international marketplace. While the process has not been without some pain along the way, the firm has well positioned itself to become a major player in core and emerging markets. DI interviewed CEO Ryc Loope about the firm’s recent exponential growth...and what its future holds.

What is Durrant’s long-term growth strategy?

Ryc Loope: To be a significant leader and influencer in the architecture, engineering, construction management, interior design and planning industry and, throughout Durrant, to enjoy the journey both personally and professionally with our clients and with the communities in which we and our works reside. We want to make a meaningful difference both in the made and natural environment and in making that difference, engage in the culturally significant and the socially relevant issues and discussions of our times and to improve the future. One might say that there is a Darwinian imperative to “grow or die.” But, growth is not just about getting bigger—scale is strategic. For Durrant, it’s about strategic growth in knowledge, location, capability, diversity, discipline, purpose, experience, quality, fun and size.

Obtaining our growth goals is not all that matters. The things we learn, the people we meet, the places we make, the actions we take along the way, also matter.

What does Durrant look for in an acquisition candidate?

Loope:We developed a strategic growth plan, which includes growth from within our own capabilities, “organic” growth, and focused growth through merger and acquisition where we go outside of our current discipline and geographic domains to identify compatible colleagues that together allow us to deliver a higher quality product and realize both our professional and personal goals.

We identified candidates which share at least one core market sector with us, which means they are significant contributors to education, healthcare, retail and/or criminal justice work— our four principal market sectors. We also require that each candidate brings one other market sector to us that we do not have, thus strengthening our knowledge reservoir. Our recent acquisition in Honolulu brought us high-rise residential and resort experience for which Durrant did not have a deep knowledge reservoir. We are also very interested in geography. We believe that one needs to think globally but act locally. As a fragmented industry, in the classical sense of Michael Porter, our markets are bound by local ordinances, controls and decision making yet the most significant projects locally generally require expertise and talents that eclipse what is available in smaller local firms. Developing a close knit global practice that is able to bring to bear on a local basis the best thinking from around the world and that is at the same time highly responsive and accommodating to the local nuances and regulations that each and every location has, we are able to both technically and culturally respond to the uniqueness of location. We look for principals who desire to continue growing their career who are dedicated to mentoring the next generation of leaders and owners. Transitional commitment and goals are a major component in our acquisition candidate review.

Finally, we are interested in fit. Some people call it “culture.” Though the true cultural differences between design firms are not great, the ability of the firms to fit together in a working relationship of partnership and aspiration is critical for success. Sometimes that fit is about very mundane issues like computing platforms. But generally, the fit has more mission critical influences such as the personal and professional aspirations of the members of the firm that we are acquiring fitting together with the personal and professional aspirations of the members of Durrant. And, one of the big fit issues is to have fun. We look for people who truly get joy from what they are doing and see that they will be able to enhance the amount and quality of joy they receive by being part of Durrant.

One of the great joys we’ve had came from the establishment of the Durrant Foundation, a non-profit educational organization. We support research in select universities and outreach programs sharing critical issues in architecture, engineering, construction management and interior design to the general public at large. The Durrant Foundation, in just a few short years, has attracted not only the philanthropic support of members in Durrant but also many other players in the industry. We now support endowments in ten major universities offering A/E/CM programs with scholarships for young men and women to help assist them in their educational pursuits as well as offering paid internships to these scholarship recipients to work in Durrant offices during the summers enhancing their preparation for entrance into the profession into what will hopefully be a productive, rewarding and enjoyable career for them.

What areas (geographic or market sector strength) should we expect to see acquisitions in the future?

Loope: We are looking for opportunities in areas that are growing significantly faster than the GDP where a practice of 25 to 50 design professionals is considered significant in size and influence. We will be looking to find opportunities to enhance the knowledge and capabilities of Durrant and with partners who will elevate the quality and joy of the practice of A/E/CM.

How is Durrant’s culture communicated to/instilled in newly acquired firms?

Loope:We primarily instill a sense of partnership and belonging right from the beginning. All of Durrant’s key leaders are involved in every acquisition. Our CFO acts as a personal and financial advisor to each Durrant member while fulfilling his responsibility to make sure all employees receive the full range of benefits offered to members of Durrant. We make sure that new members are introduced either physically or electronically to the entire staff at Durrant. We ask everyone to communicate with our new partners, both directly and electronically, to share joint interests and experiences, alma maters, friends and colleagues in the industry and/or their passions for art, recreation or other interests within or outside of Durrant. Our wide area network and Intranet as well as our own printed magazine, INSITE, helps assimilate new and old together towards an elevated sense of purpose and belonging.

Other competitors have had dismal failures recently in some of their acquisition moves. Do you think yours have been successful?

Loope: The success in our acquisitions has been from the commitment that each member of Durrant makes to embrace our new members in the best sense of partnership and to quickly turn that embrace into a directed and purposeful professional engagement in new and exciting projects. As a result, very quickly our newest members are working side-by-side with members who have been with Durrant the majority of their professional lives and the boundaries between new and old disappear. As a matter of fact, our growth has been so strong that over 50% of the members of Durrant have been with the company for 5 years or less.

What do you think the appropriate limits of marketing usage are with regards to acquired merged firm’s portfolios of past work?

Loope: A good question and one that always comes up is how can one ethically and appropriately position work done in the past for the future? If you believe, as I do, that we are knowledge workers and hired for our knowledge first and our experience second, then one looks at portfolios as knowledge reservoirs. You are really looking at a broad reservoir of knowledge and capability, which span from the most junior to the most senior individual and the portfolio and body of work is an important part of that knowledge reservoir.

Accessing and citing portfolio work that one may not have designed, but has knowledge from because you have reviewed the project in your archives and are intimately familiar with the decision outcomes, I believe is both appropriate and ethical. Bringing on new firms with their own portfolio requires both on an ethical as well as a professional and tactical rigor and discipline to absorb that knowledge and information share it broadly throughout the organization.

What lessons that you have learned about successful mergers and acquisitions?

Loope: The first is that taking longer to make an acquisition is not necessarily better. If there are problems resident with the acquisition they will be there one year from now as well as one month from now. The sooner the acquisition is made the sooner the problems are flushed out, can be addressed and rectified. Doing nothing or moving slowly are two failures that cannot be compensated. Making a mistake is better than not taking any action. A mistake can be corrected. Inaction is opportunity lost forever.

Secondly, I believe more communication is better than less and personalizing that communication is critical in helping new partners feel that they are truly partners within Durrant. Communication not only needs to be at the highest level but also needs to be throughout all the levels of the organization and needs to be genuine.

The third lesson is that acquisition is not just about the two parties in the transaction but is also about the family members involved, the clients and the communities in which the acquisition reside. And so a significant effort in talking with the clients and the leadership of the community about the aspiration of the acquisition and to properly introduce Durrant and to assure clients and community that the best of the acquisition firm that they have come to respect and expect are not going to be lost but rather enhanced. A significant amount of time and energy is spent with clients and community before and after the acquisition. This is critical for the long-term success of the acquisition.

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