During the 2016 holidays, Jamie and I were chatting with a friend and former client who asked a probing question. “Why had DFA felt confident enough to expand – we had leased a second floor of space at our midtown townhouse headquarters – and why were we experiencing such growth?”
I answered in a flip manner, but over time, I reflected on this question a great deal. Our loyal friends and family would probably answer the question by citing our accomplishments, and I would add “perseverance.”
We started our firm in 1991, in the middle of a recession. To make matters worse, we made a lot of mistakes, most notably hiring a controller whom we discovered to be an embezzler. I’ve tried to write that chapter, but even after the passage of time it is difficult. In March of 2000, the bursting of the dot-com bubble crashed the economy. And about then I first came to explain the sensation of bouncing between troughs and valleys. On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. Six weeks after the attack, I sat alone in our office with a pen and a yellow legal pad and made a list of then-current projects. If no projects were to cancel, and if no new projects commenced, when would we turn the key in the lock for the last time? New York City survived and so did we.
In 2008, the United States financial system was in peril, and we tumbled into the so-named “Great Recession.” That year, we signed just one new project and our survival was attributed to an accumulated workload and backlog of projects and secured by the confidence that came from having previously weathered difficult times. As an estimated forty percent of our colleagues were losing their jobs, we held on and were at full strength as the economy recovered. While the 2008-2010 recession tested us, it also provided opportunity. We had time to analyze and to reflect, and this time around, we were not a start-up on life support. For me, the Great Recession was a catalyst, encouraging us to think about and refine our business strategy.
In 2010, we began rebuilding. Clients came calling with new projects, and while the economic restart brought work, it also presented new challenges. Clients, still hurting from the downturn, were hesitant with their scope commitments and demanded very competitive pricing from contractors. Although we were working at full capacity, fundamental changes in mood were apparent and some of the joy seemed to be gone.
October 2012 brought us Super Storm Sandy, and while we were not displaced the way the community south of 14th Street found themselves; our block on West 56th Street was closed due to a ‘dangling crane’ at a Billionaire’s Row tower construction project one block to the north. With the office dark, I decided to visit project sites and to meet with clients and contractors with the specific goal of improving and re-imagining our business. It was this series of meetings that led to the creation of our STUDIO Program.
In the fall of 2015, after years of perseverance, the floor above us unexpectedly became available, and on a perfect, crisp fall day I had lunch with three members of my team, whom I have termed DFA “lifers.” We sat outside at a café in SoHo and drank a bottle of rose and talked of the future. As I could not have founded the practice without my first two partners, I could not have moved ahead with growth plans without the commitment of these three key individuals. I shared my vision and that we were poised for growth, but that I would not, and could not move forward without their individual and collective commitments to the organization. This was a serious proposition, and I was thrilled when they each said they were “all in.” So we move on. I, an architect; Jamie, a photographer turned marketing, technology, and HR manager; Kent, a contractor re-commissioned as an architectural construction administrator; and our office mom, Deborah, who had been a repeat client and who keeps the books and is the pulse of the office.
Finally, my answer to our friend’s question is that “we see the opportunity.” Expanding allows more individuals to benefit from the work of the firm. More clients enjoy the process and the rewards of well designed, well managed, and fun projects; more contracting partners and subcontractors are treated respectfully and fairly and get to work collaboratively with the firm and our clients; and our growing staff enjoys the non-exploitive creative culture of the firm.
I have managed to attract the most unusual, but supremely well-qualified and dedicated group of individuals who believe in our mission and have aided in our perseverance. I am thankful for their commitment and their guidance every day, and I credit these ‘lifers’ with our every success.
Footnote: It’s been a few years since I wrote the above chapter, and I am thrilled with the culture of the firm we continue to build. From Jamie, who’s been here since the beginning of time, to our most recent hire, the DFA team is a tightly knit family. During the past two years, we’ve recruited Zoe (Jamie’s wife) to come aboard and head our interiors division, bringing one more ‘lifer’ to the table. And, Kate, who first interned at DFA in 2012 is now a licensed architect and is joining the management team. And finally, Devon, too, has passed her boards as well. As the founding partner of DFA, nothing could make me prouder, or more confident in our future than working with this group and growing our professional family.