A clear path: Brad Smith

Jan 28, 2019

Managing partner of McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture (Best Firm Architecture #12 for 2018), a 260-person architecture and interior design firm based in Greenville, SC.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

“I want to help others be successful – that’s a lot of fun,” Smith says. “Building the firm culture is also enjoyable. Our culture is to practice good design – design that leads to a happy client and staff. I’m excited to be part of all this.”


The Zweig Letter: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?

Brad Smith: We’ve made some strategic hires that we call associate principals. It’s a position that someone from the inside or outside can apply for. It’s a stepping stone for a smooth internal transition and makes the process for investing in the firm easier. We also look at gifting stock so there is not so much of an initial investment. We’ve elevated several people over the years and helped them with buy-in by providing resources and assistance at local banks. We have a few in their late 30s. Currently, we have 24 shareholders, three major ones, and for the most part they are interested in the ideas of ownership.

TZL: Do you tie compensation to performance for your top leaders?

BS: It’s mixed within the firm. Most compensation is not tied to performance. Some bonuses are given to top staff but most people have salaries that are commensurate with their experience and role.

TZL: Have you ever closed an underperforming office? If so, tell us about it.

BS: We have not had to close an office (studio) for lack of performance. We have looked at re-tooling studios so they have a laser focus on the needs of their specific community. For instance, one studio may be focused on hospitality while another is focused on K-12.

TZL: When did you have the most fun running your firm, and what were the hallmarks of that time in your professional life?

BS: I started Pazdan Smith in 1993. We just had our 25th anniversary. As it grew, we merged with McMillan in 2009. We were coming out of the recession and the merger made us a lot stronger. I’m really enjoying running things now. I can focus on things like business development and client relationships and help to facilitate projects. I want to help others be successful – that’s a lot of fun. Building the firm culture is also enjoyable. Our culture is to practice good design – design that leads to a happy client and staff. I’m excited to be part of all this. I’m enjoying putting old buildings back to work. It instills and builds our culture.

TZL: Describe the challenges you encountered in building your management team over the lifetime of your leadership. Have you ever terminated or demoted long-time leaders as the firm grew? How did you handle it?

BS: It’s never easy, but I’ve had to do it. In some cases principals went back to being project managers and were no longer shareholders. In one case, I had to terminate a principal.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?

BS: Business development and firm culture.

TZL: The seller-doer model is very successful, but with growth you need to adapt to new models. What is your program?

BS: We have a hybrid model. We have a director of business development who helps to organize things. She’s not an architect, but she helps to open doors and then brings in skilled experts. We also have a robust marketing team that helps with things like proposal writing and presentations.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

BS: We create opportunities to succeed. There are no ladder rungs to climb. We work with staff to create clear paths, based on their desires and interests. We offer competitive salaries and benefits and provide opportunities to work in several different markets. Staff members can also move between our different studios.

TZL: Benefits are evolving. Are you offering any new ones due to the changing demographic?

BS: Benefits have evolved over the last 25 years. Today, we provide more flexibility than ever before – in how and where people work.

TZL: How are the tariffs impacting your business and that of your clients?

BS: We’re starting to see construction costs rise and clients are hesitant about moving forward with projects. However, I think the long-term effect will be positive. It will get worse before it gets better.

TZL: How are the tax cuts impacting your business? Have salaries and bonuses increased?

BS: We do a valuation every year. I don’t think the tax cuts will have too much of an impact. We have not increased salaries as a result of the tax cuts.

TZL: Are you currently pursuing the R&D tax credit?

BS: Yes.

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