Third person singularity

Richard Jackson of SimpsonHaugh and Partners on steering the practice through change, creating a sustainable recession proof future, and offering a more dispassionate eye

Title: Commercial partner, SimpsonHaugh and Partners

Age: 44

Practice size: 100 staff / 75 qualified architects

Practice turnover to end March 2014: £11.32m

How did you come to be commercial partner?

I joined in June 2014, having been a partner at, first, Davis Langdon and then Aecom for 14 years managing a business unit in consultancy with teams in Europe and the Middle East. I had worked with many architects over the years and had known Ian (Simpson) and Rachel (Haugh) and many of the senior team for over a decade. They took me out to lunch and described their exciting plans for the future of the practice and persuaded me to join! I’m not an architect: this was a decision by Ian and Rachel to have someone not emotionally attached to design. I keep out of design matters, instead I focus on managing the business side of things, including strategic direction, fees, appointments, contracts, project performance and practice operations. 

How do you judge your success?

It is about making a sustainable future for the practice. From a business perspective we have a three year strategic plan. This sets the benchmark against which we judge our success. In architectural terms our awards history is important, and we were awarded the ‘Office architect of year 14/15’ which is great as it demonstrates our ability to deliver our vision of great architecture in sectors that some may not have considered our forte. However, our success is really the quality architecture that is being built on site now in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Antwerp.

How are you making that happen?

In the first six months we transformed the practice from a traditional 50/50 partnership to a limited liability partnership to widen ownership and drive engagement and accountability. It made sense to combine this activity with the long-planned rebranding of Ian Simpson Architects as SimpsonHaugh and Partners. This meant a lot of work and change management but we felt it was a new phase in the practice history and so the time was right. We have ensured the partners all have roles – it is quite a cultural shift as they have been ingrained in job running. We now have a board that meets every three months to review strategic matters, monthly Skyped partner meetings for all partners, monthly senior team meetings and end of month office meetings for all staff. We also have a good social committee that arranges events in each location and our Intranet, called Update, that all staff use to communicate.

And profit?

Clearly achieving our desired level of profit is important to enable the practice to invest in its staff, technology, workplaces and rewards. It isn’t our only financial metric though – as with any business, cash is king and we keep a close eye on this. One thing I hadn’t appreciated is the sheer cost of IT in architecture which is a partial consequence of the drive for BIM; quite staggering!

It is very rewarding to be able to affect change. But now we need to get traction on the changes made so the next three to six months will be about a proper analysis of how profitable and problem free our projects are, and about our partners settling into their roles – including more networking and winning work.

Who taught you most beyond the practice?

I was lucky to be at Davis Langdon in its golden age and surrounded by high achievers and charismatic leaders. The culture was to take responsibility and flourish – Paul Morrell, Dave Smith and Tony Llewelyn particularly influenced me with not only the standard business stuff but also how to learn and to listen before you put your foot in. You can read all the business books in the world but there is no substitute for doing it.

However, before I joined I did read about growth and not growing. One book that stood out was Small Giants, which looks at companies that decided to be great instead of big. I wanted our direction to be right for the practice. We are quite cautious about targeting growth, especially staff growth.

What is the next big challenge?

Not BIM! The next few years are going to be interesting with the improving economic climate, including the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and overseas investment. There is plenty of work for decent practices. I think it is going to be a busy period where juggling resources will definitely be a big challenge – while at the same time keeping to our plan to enter more international markets and continuing our drive for diversifying into other market sectors. The question is: are the fee levels appropriate? There seems to be a mismatch with rising salary levels, at least in the short term. And we have to make sure we are recession proof the next time round – the next five years might be good but it is about how practices set themselves up for recession.