Cincinnati CEO usually operates at about 150 miles per hour, but from time to time he puts on the brakes.
By Liisa Andreassen
When it comes to leading, David Arends, CEO of CR Architecture + Design (Hot Firm #19 for 2016), a 175-person firm based in Cincinnati, says it’s important to trust people to do what they say they are going to do. It’s this philosophy that has helped CR to grow and prosper and it looks like the trend is going to continue for some time.
A conversation with David Arends.
The Zweig Letter: Tell me a little about your path to get here?
David Arends: I always knew what I wanted to do. In 1997, I started my own firm. We were a small firm of 10. CR Architecture and Design approached me several times about coming on board and merging with them. I was not interested at first, but they continued to pursue me. They did not have an internal leadership plan in place and were looking externally. After three years of discussion, I decided to accept their offer and we merged companies in 2002. I became CEO within one year.
TZL: What are the most evident changes you’ve seen since 2002?
DA: The expansion of service offerings. They had one office when I started, now there are five and soon to be six. We’ve also added new services such as interior architecture and urban planning. We’ve gone from 40 people to 175. Currently, we have eight areas of expertise.
TZL: What are your key leadership strengths?
DA: The ability to have a clear vision and strategy and sticking to the plan.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
DA: I give people the resources they need and get out of the way. I’ll dive in when I need to. If people don’t see me, they know everything is going well. If I pop up, they know there’s a problem and we’ll work through it together.
TZL: What’s been your greatest challenge to date and how did you handle it?
DA: The recession. It was the first time I felt like I was not in control of the business’ destiny. We had to lay people off and for me that was a personal failure. But, we survived and came out stronger. Communication was key and our business model was diverse enough which allowed us to stay afloat.
TZL: What is your vision for the future of CR?
DA: It’s easily measured in numbers. To grow 25 percent in net services revenue and 15 percent in profit net service revenue. Growth and profitability equal success and opportunity.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
DA: Designing Princeton’s joint middle school/high school campus. It began with a detailed master plan. With the new high school being built on the old middle school’s site, phasing was a vital element of the design approach. The new middle school was constructed first, which paved the way for the old middle school’s removal. High school construction began shortly after and was followed by the completion of Viking Village. This centrally located, shared space includes a natatorium, arena-style gymnasium, performance theater, and music complex. Each school features science labs, art studios, and technology for project-based learning. Physical education and athletic facilities include weight rooms, wrestling rooms, and auxiliary gymnasiums. The music wing includes a 1,000 seat theater as well as studios for vocalists, the band, the orchestra, piano, jazz, and theater. The district is committed to attaining LEED Silver certification. Key green design aspects include daylighting, enhanced acoustics and a chilled-beam mechanical system. The final phase of the master plan was a new athletic complex at the site of the old high school. Site renovations entail new softball and baseball facilities, a new middle school track, parking, and football and soccer practice fields, dually used for band practice.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to stay competitive?
DA: We have a solid business model. During the recession, we also had a chance to slow down and really examine what we were doing. We focus on core values and make sure that our values and those of our clients are well aligned. It’s important to not just hire anyone with a pulse. We’re selective about our employees and clients too.
TZL: Is there any news you care to share about what’s currently happening at CR?
DA: We’re in a rapid growth mode. I believe it’s a good time for our industry. We are proactively recruiting and recently hired a full-time recruiter. We have an aggressive model and it’s also helping to expand our geographic footprint because we’re looking in places we have not looked in the past.
TZL: Are you married? Do you have children and/or pets?
DA: I have two adult daughters.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
DA: Most people know that I operate at about 150 miles per hour. However, I do actually put on the brakes from time to time. I’m happiest near a body of water with a cold beverage and I have four boats – all motor boats of course. I have no patience for sailing.
TZL: What’s your best vacation spot? Do you have a dream destination?
DA: I have a vacation home in Wayland, Michigan. It’s where I can really decompress. I travel for business just about every week, so my dream spot is my home in Wayland.
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
DA: Accountability by Greg Bustin. It’s very relevant to our industry.
TZL: What’s the last movie you saw?
DA: I have a very short attention span and no patience for a movie. I watch the trailers.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you ever received?
DA: I always liked Nancy Reagan’s motto: “Just say no.” It applies to many different things. In business, you have to know when to stay the course and to say no even if others are not happy about it.
TZL: Who is a leader you admire?
DA: I may get a lot of flak for this, but George W. Bush. He was not afraid to make decisions that might offend people.
TZL: What activities do you enjoy outside of work?
DA: Golfing and boating.
TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?
DA: There are two restaurants I really enjoy. One is located in Dallas – Hard Eight BBQ – and the other is the Village Cheese Shanty in Wayland. Anything from either of those places would suit me just fine.