Fred A. Bernstein

Architecture Firm Succession Plans

Can Frank Gehry's firm outlive its founder? Norman Foster's? Zaha Hadid's?

Published in Architectural Record, December 28, 2014

Bjarke Ingels, who is only 39, would like to have one, soon. "The reason succession plans don't work," he says, "is that people start to think about them much too late."

By contrast, Daniel Libeskind, 68, says he doesn't need one. He sees his architecture firm as the equivalent of an artist's studio-one that could well expire soon after he does.

But architecture firms are generally more than artist's studios-they are companies with payrolls to meet and projects to complete; keeping a firm going when a founder dies can be an economic and practical necessity-as well as a tribute to a mentor and creative force.

Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, of New Orleans, had three partners, seven principals, and 48 employees last December when its founding partner, Allen Eskew, died unexpectedly. Just two days later, it was named firm of the year by the AIA -based in part on its commitment to encouraging young talent.

That commitment paid off: six months after Eskew's death, the firm is thriving and "building on the legacy Allen created," says partner Steve Dumez, 55. It helps, he says, that Eskew+Dumez+Ripple was never balkanized. "In terms of client contact," Dumez says, "we had found ways to overlap, or double-team, if you will, on most key projects."

But if the firm's collaborative nature helped it survive beyond Eskew's lifetime, there was a contractual aspect to the firm's succession plan as well. The three partners had agreed to sell their shares back to the firm in increments, starting at age 65 and ending at 70, to ensure that none of them controlled the company into his dotage. The partners could continue working, but as employees of the firm. Eskew, having turned 65, had begun divesting himself of his shares shortly before he died. The firm was able to purchase his remaining shares from his estate. That's because it had "key man" insurance-a life insurance policy on Eskew, with the firm as the beneficiary, written precisely for this purpose. Otherwise, the shares could have passed to Eskew's heirs, complicating control of the company.

Succession is one of the trickiest questions for architects, even in an era when collaboration is touted as being more important than individual genius. Few of the 20th century's big-name architects formed firms that lived on after them. Some architects care, while others seem fatalistic. Libeskind, who made his living teaching until he won the competition, in 1989, for what became the Jewish Museum Berlin, says, "Since I had no plans to have an architecture office, I have no plans not to have an architecture office."

Gene Kohn, a founder of Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), has observed the dissolution of two important firms. Early in his career, Kohn worked for Welton Beckett, the architect of some of California's most important midcentury buildings. When Beckett died, his firm dissolved. "There was a succession plan; it wasn't followed, because of a conflict between family members," said Welton's son, Bruce Beckett, himself an architect in California. "It was a tragedy."

Later, Kohn worked for John Carl Warnecke, who in the 1970s ran one of the largest firms in the United States. But Warnecke, who reportedly felt that his firm shouldn't survive him, purposely downsized as he approached retirement.

Kohn left Warnecke in 1976 to start a new firm with Bill Pedersen and Sheldon Fox. "One of the first things we discussed," says Kohn, "was that we wanted to create a firm that would continue beyond our time. That was a goal from day one."

And while Kohn, who is 83, and Pedersen, who is 76, are still working full-time (Fox died in 2006), Kohn says he is confident that "someday I can sit back in a rocking chair and read about the great things KPF is doing."

To achieve that, the founders devised a plan under which each KPF principal-there are now two dozen-would own stock in the firm, with the number of shares of each tied to various metrics. The firm doesn't have a sell-back requirement, like Eskew+Dumez+Ripple; Kohn says he will continue to own stock for the rest of his working life. But if he dies, the shares will be bought back by the firm-which, like Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, has key-man policies on its principals. The value of the shares doesn't fluctuate-you have to sell them at the price for which you bought them, says Kohn-a rule meant to discourage principals from retiring when share prices are high.

There may be some firms that no succession plan can save-it's hard to imagine Zaha Hadid Architects without Zaha Hadid, now 63. Principal Patrik Schumacher, 50, says, "We have been discussing this issue internally and recognize this as a challenge in a firm or brand with a charismatic founder-leader-celebrity." Or Gehry Partners without Frank Gehry. Gehry, 85, told RECORD, "My vision for succession is that the talented people who work with me will spread their wings." When asked if his successor architects might use his name, he replied, "I would hope not. I would hope they would get their own identity. If they wanted to use [the Gehry name] for continuity, until they got started, that would be fine."

Other architects try to establish practices that will carry on after them. But does it work? Last year, Foster + Partners resigned the commission to design an expansion of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow; Moscow's chief architect, Sergei Kuznetsov, said the relationship might not have ended had Foster, now 79, been more involved. "Norman Foster must himself work on the project and defend it, face-to-face, personally, or he must turn down this project," Kuznetsov told reporters last August.

Foster, in a phone call from London, rejected Kuznetsov's assertion, saying, "I was really on top of this particular project." He said there are some projects he handles personally-the Pushkin was one of them-while others are assigned to his 17 senior partners and more than 200 partners and associate partners. "Do I regularly see every client?" Foster asked. "Of course I don't. And there's no reason I need to. If you're talking about succession, I have a lot of very satisfied clients who relate to younger members of the practice, and they're very happy. I feel I've been very successful in devolving responsibility. Succession is being very well addressed."

He added: "I think I would be missed if I weren't around. But am I indispensable? I think I'm not."

Some "name" architects feel obligated to make way for their younger partners. Steven Holl Architects, for example, makes a point of crediting the firm's projects to both Steven Holl, 66, and partner Chris McVoy, 50. Richard Rogers, 80, changed the name of his firm to Rogers Stirck Harbour + Partners, in 2007, to recognize Graham Stirck, 57, and Ivan Harbour, 51, who had been with him for more than 20 years. Meanwhile, Robert A.M. Stern, 75, has begun calling his firm RAMSA (rather than the more personal Robert A.M. Stern Architects). He brought on a managing partner in 1988 when he was just 49, then added three design partners in 1989, and today has a total of 15 partners. "While I expect to live forever," he wrote in an e-mail, "just in case I don't, the show will go on, led by my great partners, most of whom once were my students and learned their lessons well."

But even the best-prepared firms may suffer when the only eponymous partner dies. The Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, dropped Rick Mather Architects as the designers of a planned 175,000-square-foot expansion after Mather died in 2013, at 75. The museum then awarded the commission to Ennead, but only over the protest of Mather's partners, who felt qualified to complete the job. Stuart Cade, a partner at the firm, wrote in an e-mail: "Apart from the Peabody Essex Museum, we received the full support of our clients and continue to do so. The firm continues to grow, with existing and new high-profile projects, giving us great confidence in the future of RMA."

Ironically, the most successful transition by an American firm may be the one accomplished by Polshek Partnership Architects in 2011: the firm deleted the founding partner's name entirely and weathered the inevitable confusion. The new name, Ennead, is starting to become familiar. In the meantime, the firm's 11 partners don't have to explain to clients why founder James Polshek, 84, isn't at every meeting. Polshek says it was his choice to retire from the firm, explaining, "I didn't want to end up like Oscar Niemeyer, famously trying to control everything until the end." As for the name change? In his recent book, "Build, Memory," he refers to Ennead as his "legacy firm."