Look at Downturn as Time to Improve Business

by Geoffrey Butler, AIA

It’s no secret that we are in a recession unlike any faced by today’s leaders. I have been in the architecture profession for 40 years, leading a firm for 31 years.


I have never seen this type of business environment, which leaves many shops asking what we’re to do when the work slows. 

The approach at Butler, Rosenbury & Partners has been multifaceted, and out steps are outlined here.


Get lean

The first thing we did was trim expenses. To do this, cut out all the things that cost money and are not directly tied to business operations. During busy times, we got a little lazy. We hired people to water our plants; we added staff to do things we used to do ourselves; and we added lots of meals. It seemed that anytime we needed to meet, we would schedule it around lunch and order in. If anyone needed office supplies, we just ordered them.


It was amazing how much fat we could trim when we paid attention to where we spent our money. I can tell you that there are people in the Ozarks and nationwide who are cleaning their own offices and scrubbing toilets. It makes you appreciate the little things.


We also looked at our staff members’ productivity.


Staff utilization rates show you how much time is billable. How were those nonbillable hours spent?


Staff who were very billable were easily identified, but even then we needed to look at how effective that billable time was. If employees spent twice as much time on the work as they should, that wasn’t good.


Then, there was work quality to consider. Work done fast might not be done well. If it had to be redone or the mistakes resulted in problems in the field, that’s not good, either. We had to balance our diminished work load with staffing and, regrettable, we had to let some people go.


Letting people go is painful for all parties involved, but leaders can either step up and make the tough choices or allow a deteriorating business situation get worse.


Wise up and get busy

With staffing cuts to match the work, we needed to make sure that the people we had, leadership included, were working smarter.


We took time to work on our business, and we wanted to make sure that we could do more for our clients with less effort. It’s no secret that there’s more competition for available work, which drives down fees, so working smarter was the only answer.


We could sit around with our head in our hands moaning about the miserable economy, but how productive is that? It’s not.


Our firm decided to get very busy in reaching out to past and current clients to see if there was anything we could do for them.


When things were humming along and work seemed to walk in the door, we might have gotten a little lazy and stopped making those follow-up calls or networking proactively.


Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking success is all because of things they did. Wrong. When the economy was on fire, everyone was swept along on a wave of business activity.


When things slow down, it’s a time to face the brutal facts and make adjustments in marketing and networking efforts. That included doing more with less, using the Internet for networking, blogging and targeted e-mail campaigns. We also took time to just get out there and mingle. Nothing beats one-on-one communication and networking.


Here are some other perspectives on building business in a down economy:


  • Focus on your strengths. As work slows down, you have to be careful to not just jump for any work out there. Every design professional is going after the same work, so why waste your resources going after work you have little experience and capability in? Find the work that you have done – and can do well – and focus on that.
  • Work outside the box. There are lots of services design firms can offer, but sometimes, we don’t think about those things. Consider expanding in the areas of land planning and zoning, building forensics, expert witness services, facility evaluations, project management or energy audits.

Clients need – and are willing to pay for – these and other services, but sometimes we forget how broad our education and training is and get lost doing the basics.


Take time to appreciate what you do have. Yes, times are tough. But what about the work you do have and the staff what are hanging in there with you and counting on you to help to bring things around?


At the end of the day, we need to be able to reciprocate the trust, faith and support that we are receiving.

This is a time for us to learn, grow and get better. We need to take advantage of it.