Wes Jones and Kim Marks knew the recent economic downturn was going to create challenges for their Charlotte-based architecture and interiors design firm, ai Design Group. So they planned accordingly.
Jones, 54, and Marks, 52, the firm’s founders and principals, used the difficult period to chart a course that ultimately saw the firm develop new areas of expertise, rebrand its image and attract talent that will be key for future growth.
The company launched in 2003 when Jones and Marks, former associates of another firm that dissolved, formed an alliance to work with existing clients. John Weller also was a co-founder and remains an architect in the firm.
They focused on building aiDG into a firm that placed equal emphasis on architecture and interiors – inspiring the “ai” in the company name. They look at spaces both inside and out, and from an image, design and functionality perspective.
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They employ 36 people, including nine registered architects and several additional staff members sitting for their exams in the coming year. Annual revenues are in the $6 million range, they said.
In the region, the firm is known for work on large-scale projects, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, zMax Dragway, Sonic Automotive headquarters, Ballantyne Village and MetLife retail headquarters. Their smaller scale projects include Passion8 Bistro, Donald Haack Diamonds and more than 150 projects for AAA clubs across the country, including six in Charlotte.
“We love projects that combine architecture and interior design,” said Marks, who leads the firm’s interiors team. “The opportunity to collaborate with clients to fully address what they want to accomplish with their space is exciting.”
Weathering the economic downturn
The recession, which started December 2007 and ended in June 2009, took a toll on the construction industry – and sectors linked to it.
“The last few years have not been kind to architects in particular,” said Scott Simpson, senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and co-author of “How Firms Succeed,” speaking to ArchDaily, an architecture news publication.
“Between 2008 and 2011, total construction spending in the U.S. dropped more than 20 percent, from $1 trillion to less than $800 billion, which eliminated more than 2 million jobs industry-wide. Architecture firms took an even bigger hit, declining 40 percent from $44 billion to $26 billion during the same period.”
For the firm, the key to weathering the storm was its emphasis on relationships with clients, business partners and staff members.
“Frequent, open communication with our team was especially important during the downturn when we had to do some belt tightening,” Jones said. “This extended to the leadership team as well, and we took cuts in compensation along with the rest of our team. It’s important to us to be the type of leaders that people will follow.”
Maintaining key talent was a challenge during the recession, with many architects and designers leaving the field all together. “We are particularly proud that we were able to keep much of our key talent during the downturn,” said Jones, who noted more than half of the original team of 11 from inception are still with the firm.
Partnering was also a key strategy. The firm joined One Global Design, an alliance of “best in class” design firms across North America.
“It can be a challenge for a small-business owner to compete for and take on a huge project,” Jones said. “Becoming part of the alliance is important for us. It’s one way we can grow and expand into new markets, and share knowledge with other like-minded firms.”
Business is expected to remain strong in 2015, according to aiDG.
The firm is working on Sonic Automotive’s new chain of standalone used-car dealerships called EchoPark that are rolling out in Denver, Colo. The firm also is working on the design of an auto mall near the planned Lynx light rail line in University City, as well as doing ongoing work for Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The firm says it will increase its focus into restaurant design work, too. Through a partnership with Atlanta-based Restaurant Development Group, aiDG has several restaurant projects in the pipeline in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Maryland.
An image makeover
As the economy slowly emerged from the recession, Jones and Marks made another decision: to change the firm’s office space and branding.
They launched a new website and logo. Recently, after almost a decade at The Green in uptown Charlotte, the firm moved its offices to the top floor of the Charlotte Chamber building.
“Moving our office to our new space and undertaking a rebranding with a new logo, website and marketing material may have been a lot to do simultaneously,” Marks said, “but it paid off for us in terms of synergies and also gave us the opportunity to apply the very same approach to design as we do with our clients.”
Bright, open workspace greets visitors to the firm’s colorful, brightly-lit floor atop the chamber building at 330 S. Tryon St. Low-walled work stations are surrounded by glass windowed conference rooms that ring the floor. Large flat-screened monitors are scattered throughout. It all illustrates the reliance on collaboration and technology.
“The ways people work together are constantly evolving and changing,” Jones said. “It’s absolutely critical that we evolve and change with them.”