DesignIntelligence Media Group

DFC FIRM HIGHLIGHTS: The New tvsdesign

by Janet Simpson

When I stepped into the role of president of tvsdesign in January 2017, I was only the third person to hold that position since we opened for business in 1968. Having been a leader at tvsdesign as a studio principal, I was already deeply passionate about the firm, and understood the challenges and opportunities I was facing as president that would ensure our long-term success. The residual effects of the market crash had shaken our business in the same way it did so many other companies like ours, and the crawl back to financial stability was a slow one. Changes in the business and new pressures to keep our heads above water impacted morale, and it was clear that since we were still on unsteady footing nearly 10 years after the recession, it was time to do things differently. We developed a strategic plan that led to a refounding, completed in 2018—coinciding with our 50th anniversary—that set us on the road to company health, future growth and leadership in the industry. Here’s how we did it.

In fall of 2016, before taking the helm, I learned that our revenue levels were not as high as we had earlier projected, and that our operational expenses would need to shift to accommodate the drop in revenue. We also had cultural challenges—morale was low, and although we worked well together on project teams, most people didn’t have a broader understanding of where the firm was going or how they were individually contributing to its success. We focused primarily on projects, rather than on firm vision and direction.

One thing I have always loved about tvsdesign is that we are fairly small for the volume and wide variety of work we do globally. Having worked with our people on a daily basis, I already knew how talented and smart they are. If we could link that intelligence together toward a common goal, we could really impact the industry.

From the beginning, it was a priority to get people on board with the leadership transition and vision for success while simultaneously doing a deep dive assessment of the firm. Transparency about where we were financially, culturally and in the marketplace was critical, so I intro­duced a comprehensive snapshot of what was working and what wasn’t, which ultimately led to the firm’s two-year Refounding Plan.

The Firm Fitness Plan
The Refounding Plan was designed in two parts. 2017’s Firm Fitness Plan was first and had five major goals: 1) break bad habits and replace them with healthy habits; 2) trim expenses; 3) build muscle through increased market share; 4) build accountability into the process to help us achieve our goals, and 5) reward good results.

The spirit of the Firm Fitness Plan was exactly what it sounds like. We needed to control our costs and increase our revenue. I listed daily priorities for leaders that addressed how to tighten up spending. I hired an outside operations consultant to take a deep look at everything from cultural issues to financials. I leaned hard on some outside consultants the firm already had in place. I also started looking for a CFO who could help shape some of those priorities. All of these steps grew out of under­standing our cultural issues and our revenue performance.

To the firm-facing side, I spent my days talking to people and gathering information. I established leadership councils with both seasoned veterans of the industry and people with less than 10 years of experience. I also established a brand and culture committee. These groups provided perspectives from all over the firm that could help inform me on issues while we were also working toward a better financial position.

Trimming expenses had a serious impact on the firm. It made people nervous because they knew cuts were on the horizon. In the process of looking at focus areas, we ultimately closed our Chicago and Dubai offices in 2017, within the first six months of the fitness plan. Those were hard but necessary decisions, but when we made the announcement, people understood it within the context of what we were trying to achieve (i.e., firm fitness). Rather than just downsizing, we were pulling back to get to an area of strength so we could come out strong again after refounding.

As we progressed through the Firm Fitness Plan, the first goal—breaking bad habits and replacing with healthy habits— started to pair with #4, building accountability. We knew that people at all levels didn’t feel empowered to help advance the firm. Also, there was little accountability for bad behavior, and people weren’t rewarded for exceptionally good behavior either. In order to empower leaders and build accountability, we worked on creating absolute role clarity, compensation incentive plans and understanding about what we wanted to do collectively as a firm.

We also worked on building a healthy culture. We knew we needed healthy tension in our Firm Fitness Plan if we were going to build muscle, which meant we needed to have the difficult conversations. We needed the right balance between the pull toward client service and the pull toward making a profit on that project. And being okay with a healthy tension allowed us to create a safe environment for people to express frustration and gave us a common language.

In 2017, we made a huge financial turnaround. The Firm Fitness Plan ended with positive financial results and a very good backlog going into 2018. We wanted to take this finan­cial strength that we worked so hard for and get a framework in place to help us grow in the future.

The Intentional Success Plan
The Intentional Success Plan was developed in 2018, also with five major goals: 1) magnetic culture; 2) impactful design; 3) smart business; 4) radical relevance, and 5) irrepressible reach. Along the way, we worked toward some defining objectives and looked at metrics and measures. We knew that when we came out of the refounding, we would have devel­oped a strategic plan for going forward.

We looked at all of our resource areas of support. We asked ourselves, “How would founding a firm today be different from how it would have been founded 50 years ago?”

Needing to bolster our financial reporting and expertise, we hired a CFO for the first time in the firm’s history to guide the financial model of the company. Having him on board has helped us understand how to leverage our money to grow the company.

We also looked at marketing. In 1968, you got clients by doing good work and building relationships, but that’s not enough in today’s digital world. So, we hired a director of marketing, brand­ing, and PR who came from outside the industry and brought with him an entrepreneurial spirit. He has some fresh, new ideas about how we can engage in thought leadership and communication.

Another major growth opportunity was technology, which is key in our industry. However, the firm had not evolved in a way that allowed us to really partner with technology. It was just a tool we used, not a resource that we leveraged strategically. To address this, we hired a consultant, did a complete IT assess­ment, hired expertise, and founded a digital practice group.

And in January of 2019, we just kicked off our first year under our new Trailblazing plan.

Nothing’s Set in Stone
Our new plan, Trailblazing, will allow us to be an evergreen company that is not about me or my name on the door or anyone else’s. I feel like I’m the guardian of this smart firm with a framework that knows how to change over time and continue to thrive. It will help tvsdesign secure a greater leadership position in the industry.

During my first address to the firm as incoming president, I made seven commitments to them. I posted them on my wall, and at the end of every day, I would ask myself, “Have I done anything today to advance these commitments?” That helped me stay focused.

I was very transparent during the leadership transition pro­cess; I didn’t know any other way to do it. I was driven by the deep conviction that we weren’t making the most of the opportunities we had to have a greater impact in the industry. I wanted us to meet our full potential, and worked hard to make sure the firm shared this vision with clarity.

Refounding is not for the faint of heart. I wish I had known that if you’re making the changes for the right reason, just go bold. It’s all about communication, about making your plan for a purpose-driven company known. You just have to do the right thing, and that usually means some sort of change.

Fifty years is a long time to grow and change, and our adapt­ability and nimbleness is truly behind our longevity. We will have to keep our eye on the horizon and not get stuck on this really great framework that works. We don’t ever want to be in a place where everything is set in stone. That’s my challenge to myself now—to make sure that we don’t get stuck on today’s plan at the expense of tomorrow.

Janet Simpson is the president of tvsdesign, a commercial architecture and interiors firm in Atlanta, GA.