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Rants and Wisdom



In Rants and Wisdom

By lthomas

Gearing Down

On 27, Jan 2020 | In Rants and Wisdom | By lthomas

As I browse through my list of essays I realize that it was in 2018 that I last jotted down any ‘Rants and Wisdom’ about my practice as an architect and business owner. The past few years have been one long transition without an instruction manual. It’s not the first such transition.

In my many essays I have related my thoughts and experiences about architects and architecture; women in architecture; starting a business; being a mother and business owner; and dealing with the challenges of clients who just don’t see it (and the wonders of clients who do).

Happily, as I browse through the many blogs online I’ve found there are now a multitude of helpful commentaries corresponding to many of the same questions I’ve had on my own path. Wow, how useful this information would have been to me 33 years ago as I geared up this business! Instead I had to figure out the “You don’t know what you don’t know,” “Courage,” and “You can do it” by myself.

Now I am looking at the next phase– Gearing Down. Yes, you’ve got it—the opposite of gearing up. Not retirement but gearing down.

In a way I envy those who work for larger companies who can walk an orderly path to retirement: Do this, do that, meet with HR, cut a cake. For those like me who have geared up from a one-woman sole proprietorship to a successful small firm, gearing down is quite a different story. As I investigated my options, be they sales options or buyouts, I realized this gearing down was not going to be simple. Actually, in my case, it would be quite challenging.

The reality of my practice is ME. For any host of reasons – the ebb and flow of talented staff, the challenge of stepping up to run a business – nobody within the firm was able or willing to take the business over. When we looked at the option of acquisition, the problem again was ME. I am the “brand name” for our residential work and, as the minority business owner, a marketing and financial engine for my firm’s commercial and institutional work. Without me nothing looked rosy on the spreadsheets.

So, once again, I have to figure out my own path. As any good business transition specialist will tell you, start early. For me and my husband (who is also my business partner) this process has taken about two years. Just as you gear up a business with two and five-year strategic plans, the same applies to gearing down. And remember, you don’t know what you don’t know.

My first goal was to slim or shed much of the business overhead load so I could concentrate on design projects. Wow, so much easier said than done! There are payrolls and employee benefits, large office rent, bloated technology and unnecessary PAPER everywhere. What to toss? What gets recycled, donated or shredded? As I went through this transition towards slimming down it was critical that I remain financially aware. I was careful to analyze what we had on hand and what would be needed to fully accomplish this gearshift. (Thanks, Liz!)

Two years after I began this process, I am happy to say that I am 90% there. My mantra has now become: Reimagine, Reset, Revisit, Refresh, Repurpose. (Not Retire.) In my reimagined practice and in this moment of my life I realize what’s important and at the top of that list is that I want to select the client, not the project. I love that I have the freedom to work with clients with whom I’ve built good relationships rather than take on projects just to keep the hamster wheel turning. I currently have four houses in various locales under construction for wonderful clients and I couldn’t be happier.

None of this was in the instruction manual because for me, there’s never been an instruction manual. Almost there. Begin!