After working for CTA Architects Engineers for more than 35 years and rising to principal and president of the internationally known firm, Jim Shepard still displays an old rejection letter on the wall of his office.
The letter is from CTA, which hired Shepard two years after initially rejecting him.
“I came to the firm as a student intern, and they treated me wonderfully,” he says. “I was lucky enough that they said, ‘If we have work, you have a job.’ I call myself the ‘oldest student intern,’ since I never had to submit a portfolio.”
Shepard’s long tenure with CTA characterizes the firm, which seems to attract and then retain the “right” people. CTA’s professionals together create a palette of complementary skills, underpinned by a powerful common dedication to helping the firm continue to thrive.
CTA began life in 1938 as Cushing & Terrell from an idea shared in front of a campfire. After a day of fishing on Montana’s Boulder River, friends Ralph Cushing, a structural engineer, and Everett Terrell, an architect, hit upon their then-novel concept of integrating disciplines.
The two men recognized the many advantages of working for one company, and they opened their first office in Billings. Cushing and Terrell remained active with the firm until the 1970s, when they both retired.
“There was diversity in the two,” says Gene Kolstad, who has been with CTA for 44 years and worked with both men. “Ralph was a marketing person—very social, involved in a lot of activities—while Everett had great organizational skills and kept all the books. Both had lovely personalities.”
Kolstad is himself something of a legend. He has both a professional engineer’s license and an architectural license and is the firm’s past principal and past chairman of the board.
“Our original founders set a great example,” says Keith Rupert, current CEO and principal, who joined the firm in 1974. “They were consummate professionals who always took the high road and took care of their clients. We try to pass that along both by what we say and by what we do. We create teachable moments about making the right decision and living up to responsibilities.”
The first regional office of Cushing & Terrell opened in Idaho in 1966. The firm became CTA Architects Engineers in 1969 when it incorporated, and today has offices in 17 locations.
The firm’s more than 300 employees offer 21 specialty services to an international client base, including finance, health care, education, residence/resort, government, industrial, retail and commercial sectors. Clients benefit from both depth and breadth of experience, and from the efficiencies that integrated design can offer. The firm also has more than 90 LEED-accredited professionals through all its disciplines.
Rupert, an architect who joined the firm in 1974, remembers immediately noticing the benefits of the integrated design process. “Having the engineers down the hall to collaborate with was a night-and-day difference,” he says. “It was such a breath of fresh air, and I was absolutely delighted. Working together, we have a much more unified set of priorities.”
Shepard says the firm’s success is also due to its employees’ work ethic. “We’re a hard-working bunch; we’re way above the average for overtime,” he adds. “We’re not leaving on Thursday afternoons to golf. None of us divorce ourselves from project work.”
Then, too, there are CTA’s longtime policies of openness, trust and integrity. “We’ve always had an open-book policy, which builds trust with all of our people; they feel more a part of the organization,” Kolstad says.
He adds that two additional factors have benefited CTA: staying in close touch with national industry leaders and remaining true to the Golden Rule of treating others as you’d want to be treated.
Shepard says, “At the very top of our vision is ‘integrity and client service.’ That says a lot. It starts at the top and permeates the firm.”
A Strong Culture
Over six decades, CTA has applied this vision (and eight others) to the creation of its vast and varied portfolio. The firm has completed significant work for higher education, government and health-care clients, as well as projects for immediately recognizable commercial entities such as Whole Foods, Wells Fargo, Gold’s Gym, Dell Computer Corp. and Albertsons. CTA completes an average of more than 1,000 projects per year.
To satisfy this growing demand, CTA relies heavily on a multitalented group of professionals. Employees are given opportunities to advance and recognition for accomplishments – and they’re also taught to own up to mistakes.
“We have a strong culture, and we try hard to articulate it,” Rupert says. “From the outset, we sort of set the course for integrated design with our concept of service and one-stop shopping for our clients.”
Shepard adds: “At the board level, we feel we are caretakers of the firm. Our attitude is that we’re grooming the next owners.”