Construction industry firms of all types and sizes strive—and often claim—to be relationship-driven enterprises with a more personal touch than their peers. Oftentimes, though, many firms find that consistently achieving this goal is easier said than done.
For McMillan Pazdan Smith, though—this year’s Southeast Design Firm of the Year—the evidence shows that the firm has built its business, and its reputation, by successfully establishing and maintaining long-term relationships with the clients and numerous communities that it serves.
Chad Cousins—who was promoted to CEO from COO last October—says the firm’s long-standing attribute of focusing on relationships, rather than transactions, has been a point of subtle but renewed emphasis in recent years.
The firm—which Cousins describes as having a “low ego”—has historically been driven by “strong passion across the firm in community centeredness and building relationships and bringing the problem-solving capability, market expertise, design ingenuity and entrepreneurial thinking to those opportunities,” he says.
One of those enduring relationships is with The Harper Corp., a Greenville-based general contractor that most recently ranked 50th in the Southeast with $229 million in 2018 Southeast revenue. Over multiple decades, the contractor has teamed up with McMillan Pazdan Smith on “literally hundreds” of projects together, says David Harper, company president.
Not surprisingly, the two Greenville companies have similar cultures, Harper says, adding that the architectural firm often proves to be “very collaborative,” even when project issues turn “prickly.” That fact has proven beneficial over time, as the two companies have naturally encountered situations on projects that are not always easily resolved, he says.
In those situations, “I’ve always found them to be very fair and reasonable and willing to work together for the best outcome,” he says, adding that the architectural firm brings “an open-mindedness and a results-based problem-solving mentality to projects.”
Another fan of the firm is Nancy Whitworth, the former director of economic development for the city of Greenville. Now retired, Whitworth lauded McMillan Pazdan Smith’s involvement with city planning initiatives and noted the firm’s flexibility.
“Though they always were very good with their design, they were always willing to kind of step back and maybe take a different approach,” she says.
The firm—based in Upstate South Carolina, with offices in Greenville and Spartanburg—has prospered with its so-called “low-ego,” relationship-focused approach, averaging annual revenue percentage increases in the low teens over the past several years, according to the company. Additionally, the firm’s staff has grown from roughly 100 employees in 2012 to its present total of about 260—and is holding steady due to the firm’s ability to tap into coronavirus funding from the government.
In addition to Greenville, McMillan Pazdan Smith maintains offices in Atlanta, Charlotte, Asheville, N.C., Spartanburg, S.C., and Charleston, S.C.. Over the past five years, the firm has achieved a 34% increase in net revenue, a fact the company says “is driven almost exclusively by organic growth objectives and execution.”
An exception to that trend occurred in 2019, when McMillan Pazdan Smith acquired Cort Architecture, a firm that was active in the K-12 market in Charlotte and Asheville.
Roughly five years ago, the firm’s leadership began re-emphasizing the importance of McMillan Pazdan Smith’s existing strengths—mainly its personal engagement with clients, communities and, importantly, each other.
“We’ve just tried to amplify that from our DNA and reflect it,” says Cousins. “We constantly emphasize that we’re not transactional, that we’re building relationships and we have to think about the context of those relationships in the overall community.”
McMillan Pazdan Smith also has initiated several internal leadership development programs in recent years. The effort began in 2012 with Leadership MPS, a program aimed at developing future leaders.
More recently, in 2017, the firm launched its 18-month Leadership Development Program for emerging future principals that addresses culture, leadership innovation and design.
The firm actively seeks to foster not only skilled leaders, but a talented and diverse staff in general. In its description of notable achievements that McMillan Pazdan Smith shared with ENR Southeast via its Top Design Firms survey, for instance, the firm boasted, rightfully, that women comprise approximately 45% of staff, noting that the firm is “constantly seeking opportunities to attract diverse talent in all roles.”
In pursuit of that goal, McMillan Pazdan Smith recently hired a vice president of human resources experienced in diversity and inclusion in an attempt to ensure that everyone has “a sense of belonging and being part of the firm’,” Cousins says. “We continue to do it both from a gender-equity basis, but also from all aspects of diversity.
With the firm’s goal of community engagement foremost in mind, McMillan Pazdan Smith launched IdeaXchange, which it describes as a “platform for action created to impact our communities in a positive way.”
In April 2019, the firm used IdeaXchange to gather together a group of Greenville civic and business leaders, developers, housing representatives, architects and engineers to discuss the city’s affordable and workforce housing needs. The South Carolina chapter of the Urban Land Institute was among the event’s co-sponsors.
In a video documenting the event, the discussion’s lead facilitator, Lisa Lanni, a firm principal and director of MPS’ community studio, described it this way: “What this means to us is coming together with the people who we work with every day, the leaders in our community, the thinkers and the doers.”
Through the event, McMillan Pazdan Smith and the conversation’s other participants developed a list of recommendations, action items and “next steps” and published a 16-page report addressing the “local challenges and solutions” for Greenville’s workforce housing issue.
Joe Pazdan, managing principal, believes that IdeaXchange represents an extension of the firm's dedication to supporting the local community and the development of knowledge and expertise within a specific field.
"I believe the success of IdeaExhange, our Affordable Housing Summit collaboration with Urban Land Institute, was supported by both public and private sectors because of this deep commitment to the communities we serve," says Pazdan. "Our employees strive to leave a lasting impact, through thoughtful design and community engagement, without sacrificing either goal."
The firm’s tendency toward close community and client ties, and other internal traits, could serve it well in the uncertain future. The current year started out promisingly enough, with the market feeding firms a steady set of business opportunities.
As recently as early March—before the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down construction projects—the firm was wondering how it was going to add sufficient staff capacity to support growth projections.
Time for Creativity
Today, however, across the industry, designers and contractors are challenged to envision how the pandemic may reshape the economy as well as society as a whole.
The pervasive uncertainty represents a rally-the-troops moment, says Cousins. “Creative people were built for moments like this,” he says.
Speaking of the broader design community in general, he adds: “The ability to bring ideas together, to bring communities of people together around purpose and vision and help it take shape into something better on the other end of the process is what we excel at.”
Time will tell how well McMillan Pazdan Smith—and other firms—stands up to the current challenge. But the attributes that outsiders attest to, combined with the principles the firm espouses, should give it, and other like-minded companies, a fighting chance at success.