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VOL. 126 | NO. 192 | Monday, October 3, 2011

New Façades

Pair of architecture firms rebrand to combat changing industry

By Sarah Baker

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Local architecture firms have run the gamut with realignment strategies in combating the economic downturn, from reduction of footprints and overhead to reorganizing and rebranding.

Baldemar Loya, top, and Erasmo Loya of Yarbrough’s Painting & Drywall work on the ceiling at Van Vleet Flats, the building at 109 S. Second St. that LRK is working on.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

In late 2009, Memphis-based Looney Ricks Kiss Architects Inc. filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. The news sent shockwaves throughout the industry, as one of the city’s most prominent firms – behind landmark projects like AutoZone Park and AutoZone corporate headquarters, Riverside Drive, FedExForum, Harbor Town and the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, to name a few – was being forced to reorganize.

But with a new legal name, LRK, and a slimmer workforce, the firm appears to be turning a page.

“Our firm’s growth over the last 15 to 20 years was related to private-sector clients hiring us to do planning and design of some large mixed-use and corporate projects, along with large civic projects,” said Rob Norcross, LRK principal. “Our reorganization nearly two years ago was directly related to the banking and real estate crisis, which halted projects and ultimately caused us to make decisions we’d never had to make. We acknowledged the difficult market our clients faced and took affirmative action.”

A significant reason for LRK’s successful – but difficult – reorganization was it retained its leadership team and key personnel. The 28-year-old firm once employed 250, but currently has 45 members of its full-time staff.

“We are smaller and we’ve learned to do more with less and we keep working hard for our clients and hope the market comes back stronger and better,” Norcross said. “As a direct result of careful deliberation, strategic planning, and making the right decisions, we are in a strong position and are aggressively recruiting the best and brightest design staff – including seven new hires over the last few months.”

LRK is currently behind big deals like Loeb Properties Inc.’s Overton Square revitalization; the redevelopment of Cleaborn Homes, Choice Neighborhoods for Foote Homes and the Vance Neighborhood area; Commercial Advisors LLC’s One Commerce Square rebranding; and Henry Turley’s multifamily and office space at Second Street and Gayoso Avenue, Van Vleet Flats.

The secret to the firm landing such high-profile work, Norcross said, has always been singleness of purpose: to meet the needs of its clients. While those clients have diverse needs, they share many common attributes – return on investment, operational efficiency, community building and sustainability.

Another key factor in LRK’s business model is that while it was founded in Memphis, it also works across the U.S. and has local projects in all of its offices, including Princeton, N.J., Orlando, Fla., and Baton Rouge, La.

Meanwhile, the Memphis office of brg3s architects has undergone a transformation of its own this year, separating from its national presence of Boston-based TRO Jung | Brannen to become a privately held firm.

The new name represents the firm’s six shareholders: Steve Berger, Brett Ragsdale, Susan Golden, Jon Summers, Ed Scharff and Jay Sweeney.

The Shelby County Regional Forensic Center, 673 Poplar Ave., is being built by Inman-EMJ Construction. Brg3s is the architecture firm on the project.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

As part of the lineage that began with Walk C. Jones in 1900, the firm has designed Memphis landmarks like the Shrine Building, the Claridge House and the Southern College of Optometry.

Under the former TRO Jung | Brannen structure, the Memphis office would tend to get “pigeon-holed” as a health care firm, Ragsdale said. While it is a specialty, the new brg3s brand allows for localization to become more competitive.

“Part of it is just losing a lot of that corporate structure,” said Ragsdale, who also serves as the 2011 president of the Memphis chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “In this economy, everybody is going after every project. Being able to be more agile when we hear about leads or hear about projects, we can react a whole lot quicker than we could have before.”

Competitiveness also translates to the company’s cost structure, as brg3s has been able to trim its operating costs so that it’s more compatible with the local economy.

“Being part of the larger corporation that was based in the Northeast, there were certain costs that we paid overhead for as part of a regional office,” Ragsdale said. “We felt like we would be able to do a higher quality and less expensive job if we were here locally doing it. And that’s proven to be true.”

After months of working through licensing and purchase agreements, brg3s is preparing to launch its new website, designed by Switch Creative.

Ragsdale is confident that the fresh look will underline the firm’s recent projects – such as the Humane Society of Memphis, WKNO Digital Media Center and the Shelby County Forensic Center – while also appealing to those on the local front.

“Before, because we were a part of a large corporation, we were seen as a national firm that does local stuff for marketing reasons,” Ragsdale said. “We have always been active locally with all types of different organizations – with Memphis Heritage, AIA, Humane Society, Memphis Literacy Council. We’ve put a lot of hard work into the content and we think it’s going to be able to highlight our projects, which we’re really proud of, and the design of the firm here locally, as well as our engagement in the community.”

PROPERTY SALES 38 38 12,796
MORTGAGES 27 27 8,030
BUILDING PERMITS 137 137 30,071
BANKRUPTCIES 44 44 6,108