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Local Luminaries Chat: Robert Brown

Robert Brown AIA, IIDA, LEED AP serves as managing director for the Boston office of Perkins+Will. He leads the firm’s corporate, commercial, and civic practice and is also regional director for the firm’s offices in New York, Washington, and Boston. Sitting in brand new offices on Franklin Street and wearing a neon orange watch to brighten up a winter day, he spent some time talking about our favorite topic: marketing. (Image: Perkins+Will’s ENfold Pavilion)


SMPS Boston: You are responsible for a large geographic area. What does this mean for your marketing efforts?

Robert Brown: The Boston office focuses primarily on the New England states, with Connecticut as a hotly-contested market (with the New York office). Since Perkins+Will has a regional structure, New York, Washington, and Boston are one larger market that we also look into. It is quite a breadth of area in which to work, though mostly we are utilizing the resources of our New York office for the New York area, and the same for Washington. When leaders from the three offices in the region get together, we divide and conquer, split up the leads, and work to understand what is going on.

All three offices are very strong in healthcare. Healthcare is so specialized that certain people have very specific resumes–more so than perhaps in other markets. Almost any major healthcare pursuit draws people from other offices that are creating that ultimate team. In many cases, we work beyond these three regional offices: our Atlanta office has a strong pediatrics component and the Los Angeles office has a very strong planning piece. A key focus of senior leadership is taking the different resources and spreading them out while keeping our eye on the ball.

The international market is often client-based so it is who you know that enables you to find work. The Boston office doesn’t do a lot of international work. Many of the other offices do have an international clientele: for example, Miami manages the South American work. We have offices overseas, but they are currently project-oriented or administrative. Our office in London works in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

SMPS: You are known for prominent urban mixed-use, academic, and corporate interior projects. For the benefit of our readers who are fairly new in their marketing careers, how would you characterize the differences in marketing approaches for these diverse project types?

RB: On an academic pursuit, you wouldn’t be surprised to find a list of 20 for an RFQ that gets whittled to ten for an RFP, which gets whittled to five for an interview that gets whittled to three for a design competition. In Boston especially, there is a lot of competition, a lot of firms that can do the work. And if it is anything close to a prestigious project, the field will include firms here, across the country, and around the world, really. So we do a lot of mining, continually looking at what RFPs are coming out, making relationships, and figuring out how you get through that maze of opportunities.

On the commercial side, you are waiting for your telephone ring, and they call you to come down and they say, “Can you do it for $100 million?” and you say, “Yes,” and they say, “Can you start this afternoon?” (laughs). If it is a long list, it is three or four firms. They know who you are; there may be an interview; but it just isn’t this enormous vetting process [as for higher education work]. The RFQ is much smaller, more specific to the project, and it is design and fee driven. They already know who they want to work with.

And then corporate is in between the two. Private companies have independent project managers who have to prove their worth so they create a list, maybe five or 10 design firms, and you go through that same vetting process. I think it comes down to relationship, qualifications, team, and fee.

SMPS: How do you maintain client relationships given such a diversity and the size of the region you described?

RB: In our office we have ten partners and each person has a focus. Each partner has a list of clients: my list contains primarily corporate, commercial, and some academic clients. Then, you are out on the circuit. You are out every night or every other night, talking to your business development friends, learning what they’ve heard. You are continually doing meet-and-greets with your old clients because they forget you (laughs) and new clients who never knew who you were. Some people may associate me with CBT [his former firm] and they may not know much about Perkins+Will. They might not know the size and capabilities. CBT is primarily academic and corporate whereas Perkins+Will is primarily academic, science, and health care; corporate is not a big piece of the pie. So you’re out on the circuit. And if you’re not out, then they don’t know you, unless you are stupendously famous.

SMPS: What projects of the last decade are you most proud of?

RB: Atlantic Wharf was probably the best commercial job I was involved with. I had previously done a lot of work with Boston Properties. (Atlantic Wharf started out as an Equity property and then Boston Properties bought it.) They have a remarkable way of developing and they are very professional. The team members they gather are top quality and we have all worked together before, so it is kind of like going back to the fraternity house and remembering those good times. Atlantic Wharf ended up being a LEED platinum building, which is exciting, plus it is fully occupied. It has changed the skyline. It has positioned that part of the Fort Point Channel as a strong element of the city. It has created housing they have never had before, plus the retail component is doing quite well, too. So altogether as an urban story, it has really been strong–there is a lot of alignment. It won an Urban Land Institute 2012 Global Award for Excellence. Because of my relationship with Boston Properties, perhaps it is more personal than other projects.

SMPS: Which projects have served your firm well from a marketing standpoint, perhaps out of proportion from their architectural or community significance?

RB: Perkins+Will has a social responsibility initiative that says 1% of our profit goes to nonprofit social causes. [In that context] we were contacted by the Fenway Alliance who were looking to create a pavilion. The assignment was for a fundraiser that was coming up. This would be the design element at the park across the street from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. We created an art installation, in a way. The project essentially took fabric, strung it through trees and created not so much a pavilion, but an envelope or a space. It won a World Architecture News award yet it could not be any smaller. The construction cost was around $1000 and was donated by Shawmut Construction and people from Perkins+Will did the rigging and tying off the wire. It was installed for almost two months. It was fascinating and it got notoriety yet it was done in probably a month’s time. In contrast, a hospital will be built in ten years. Whether a small corporate interior or a social responsibility project, something that has been a positive thing for a community often gets good recognition quickly. Also our staff see that small projects can make a huge difference. This project is pictured above.

SMPS: You mentioned at a BSA committee meeting on marketing and PR last year that it can be challenging to find a continuous stream of work for the 1500 people working around the world at Perkins+Will. Tell us more about big firm challenges.

RB: Previously I was in a large local office–there were 260 staff members at CBT when we were really busy. There were ten partners there, so the ratio was good: 26 to 1. That was fantastic. It just requires coordination. Here, you just take that coordination and maybe it is a hundredfold, you might think. But it’s not, because each of the offices is pretty independent. It is very fluid: we have our sales goals and we establish what markets we are going after. We find a lot of the work comes through another one of our offices or other individuals in other offices. For example, a person from the Seattle office might take part in a sustainability charrette for a Boston project because she is the guru in that area. There is also a very fluid interconnection in the marketing departments between Boston and New York: the nine marketing staff between the two offices are continually going back and forth with proposals and projects.

Frankly, it is a matter of knowing who all your ‘cousins’ are. We can ask, “Who is the right person?” Maybe we need to call Larry in New York and Jean in Los Angeles. Frankly for a large firm, the abilitiy to pick up the phone and get an answer on the other side, sometimes within seconds no matter where they are, is impressive. Colleagues know if it’s a marketing call, it’s critical. There is a slightly systematic approach yet essentially the general custom of the principals is to respond very quickly so people can start forming teams. Firmwide, you don’t have as much budget to continually meet the partners because quarterly meetings are now happening annually or semi-annually, but you can still take advantage of these get-togethers. At dinners and lunches, you might meet someone who is pretty smart, so you get their name and keep up the golden Rolodex in your head.

We do have 15 researchers across the firm. They are the database–if we don’t know something, we can call up one of the researchers and ask, “Who has done high-rises in the South?”. Each of the markets has two researchers located in various offices. One of our partners here is a knowledge researcher for higher education. We have a higher education practice here in Boston but she is mostly [performing research work] for the rest of the country. It’s pretty powerful. They are not architects, they are trained researchers, and they are constantly throwing lifelines out to ask about what’s going on in each office. They are trying to put things together and populate our website and intranet. It leverages the marketers because they know if they can’t find the partner for a particular proposal, they can get a hold of the researchers. Of course, there is more information than you know what do with. You have to figure out what is the most current, what is the most logical.

SMPS: You served as president from 2001-2002 of the Boston Society of Architects. Are you pleased with the BSA’s new public face on Atlantic Wharf?

RB: They are attracting new crowds. It’s a great goal for them. They were a hidden secret when they were in that great old historic building [on Broad Street, the previous home of the BSA]. You really didn’t know where they were. I think the move to Atlantic Wharf was a pretty bold move. It satisfied the developers’ need to have a public accommodation in that space while also meeting the BSA’s own needs for growth. They were able to promise the developers, “We are a non-profit that will not only program our own space within the building, we can program your space and we can program the outside, too.” The walking tour opportunity is really strong. I think it was a fortuitous thing–thank God for Dave Perruzzi who thought of it as the developers were asking, who can we house here? I never even thought of it. Brilliant! We were describing the entity that the developers needed–it sort of had to do four or five different things–and everybody’s asking, “Could it be the Tea Party? The ICA?” We considered institution after institution and in the end the BSA met almost every single criteria.

SMPS: You have served on the Greenway Task Force, the Back Bay Architectural Commission, and as a trustee at the Boston Architectural College. How has this community work shaped your outreach into new markets or for new projects?

RB: You might think that in some of these groups, you are just running into a bunch of architects. But contacts you made twenty years ago are now across the table from you in some way. So those relationships have been extraordinarily strong. The public activities, like the Greenway, are a little more diverse. Have I gotten a client from that kind of work? I don’t know, but I certainly made connections that may have gotten me to a client. Or, that helped me get through a process. It’s a very powerful tool for anybody who wants to be in marketing or project development work. If you don’t do [pro bono or community work] I honestly don’t know how you get through. I don’t know how you do it. It seems so relationship-based.

SMPS: You have also served as a critic at the BAC, Wentworth, MIT and Northeastern. Are you inspired by students working today?

RB: They are technically unbelievable. Things we couldn’t conceive of accomplishing within a day’s time they can do almost instantly. They can produce fabulous images that are compelling in a different way than anything that could be done before. I think it gives us the opportunity to pitch work without going “Oh my God, this is going to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s going to take us four weeks.” Now it’s a couple of days’ worth of time. There is actually a very good relationship between the young staff that are coming out of school that may not have experience but have a capability, and older staff that have more than enough experience but don’t have that capability. They need each other badly. Using tools young people are using, such as Rhino or BIM technology, allow them to say, “Look, I can do this!” and you say, “Wow, fantastic,” and then you can give it some special meaning. These student are coming out at a very sophisticated level. And due to the nature of the work we’re doing, we need very smart architects right away. How they design, I don’t know. It’s harder to evaluate. We certainly have a couple of designers here who are very facile with a tool and so they are not drawing. I think they are much more understanding of the sustainable agenda that exists and concerned about it. And are wondering as much as all of us, what is the next step on the architectural continuum? Yet none of them know anything about business. Nothing has changed there. They still think it’s a profession. So that’s something you continually have to teach and it’s probably the toughest thing in a firm. We have a big, big firm, so we have a lot of people who are very business-oriented. One half-percent miss is a big number and sweat equity doesn’t cover those kinds of costs.

SMPS: Where do you see opportunity for architecture in Boston and New England? Let’s talk about aesthetics and the dream of architecture. Where are you seeing some pockets of opportunity?

RB: We are in the renaissance again. Look at the life science explosion that’s happening in the academic institutions and the private sector. My science partner says it used to be, if you could do nothing else, you did a lab. Now the labs are truly the patrons of the arts. They are fighting for extraordinary talent. They can’t pay top researchers enough money, so there are other things they offer and the environment is a very big part of it. Therefore we are seeing some of the most creative interior design and the most dynamic workspace analysis in the science market. It is spectacular.

Healthcare is going through a rough and tumble time which I think is really good because “out with the old, in with the new”. The old paradigm isn’t affordable and the new paradigm has to be there. They have to re-think what is healthcare. Within that, typically you are seeing non-clinical work being pushed out into other kinds of buildings and then very focused clinical activities. There is a lot more focus on wellness, so design is a big piece of that. And sustainable, sensible, regenerative environments. Our project at Spaulding Rehab is just spectacular. As I say (laughs) if it wasn’t a hosptial, it would be a fabulous five-star hotel. You wouldn’t have to change a whole lot. It has amenities that you can’t believe, but they are critical for people with severe injury to rehabilitate themselves back to life. So there is a fabulous gymnasium, unbelievable swimming areas, and great views because you are in there for a long time and you are suffering. So the ability to get out of your body … it is a really a positive thing. I think it is very strong.

Boston is not stuck in red brick and its history as much as it used to be. It finally can get past the post-moderny feel it had for such a long time. “Oh, it has to look like this or has to look like that.” I think they see that a much more contemporary, interesting approach enlivens the historic (instead of “Oh, was that really done in 1890? No, it dates from 1990!”) I think that has taken some time and thank God the BRA has been pushing that. Even the neighborhood groups that were interested in the status quo, they also see that there are appropriate spaces for individual houses and townhouses and big projects. And now it’s just a question of whether they can take advantage of it.

SMPS: What does 2013 hold for Robert Brown? What are some projects or goals?

RB: This office needs to focus on ground-up construction, so we have been pushing those opportunities. There is a major hospital in Maine, there are a couple of science buildings that are happening, there are a couple hotels. I think it’s continually pushing the envelope on design work and built work.

We are going to be pushing very hard on the project delivery methods, so we can essentially keep our fees at the astronomically low level that they are but make some profit on it. We think that the best way to do this is to improve the process by which we do our documentation. We are saying let’s get smarter, not bigger. We should be able to do the same stuff with the staff that we have, we don’t have to add tens more to accomplish the work, whether through BIM or Revit or simplification of the way we do documentation. The document packages are getting bigger every single day and they don’t tell you any more information and you’re not getting better pricing. And frankly they aren’t helping the contractors in the field any more. The scale keeps getting bigger but there is not that much more information. So there is going to be a lot of work to find out from the contractors to understand what they really need. We have bright staff who know a tool, they know how to enlarge, but back when we had to draw all those crazy lines, back when we had to erase all the stuff, you were very efficient on the number of drawings you had. So from a management perspective, that is a big push.

We are still pushing hard on sustainability. We have been doing it for such a long time, it should be naturally part of our DNA, but we think it’s still important to communicate. A lot of clients don’t see it as much and there are greater opportunities than there used to be as there is better understanding. A lot of it is going to be much more metric based, so that we know what our buildings are doing and how they are performing. To go beyond stating, “We have a LEED building,” we want to show that it’s been performing at a super-high efficient level for ten years. That kind of direction.

Also, working more regionally, asking how we can share our resources, and within that, perform at the highest level and hopefully not have to duplicate businesses in three different major cities. We would like to have the access to these people and to their knowledge whether they fly here or don’t fly here. This is a good game to play. For example, we have a very specific group in Chicago that does branded environments–Eva Mattox’s old firm. This is a big differentiator because our clients know what branding means and it’s important to them. So how we get the knowledge of these 28 people infused into the rest of the firm is important … We’re calling it ‘branded environment bootcamp’. There are components of the firm that are incubators that information can flow from. That’s the value that a big firm has: we can take advantage of each of the offices as an incubator of knowledge, and then once we figure out, “That works,” spread out.

Perkins+Will has all these things, yet your brand can’t say you have a hundred things. Somehow it has to be succinct. So we have a new CMO and so she is trying to help define that. That’s a tough job!

 The LLC is a new series intended to expand the notion of the SMPS Boston community. Karen Euler conducted this interview. Contact Outlook Editor Karen Dyer if you would like to produce or help set up the next interview in the LLC series.

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