Senior principal and president of 19six Architects (San Luis Obispo, CA), one of the oldest and most established architectural firms in California.
By Liisa Andreassen
As senior principal and president of 19six Architects, Kroeker has more than 30 years of planning, design, and construction experience, with an emphasis on learning environments. He’s known for having the ability communicate well with diverse stakeholders.
Over the years, Kroeker has worked with many principals and peers and observed which traits worked and which didn’t. He was also fortunate to have close friends who were great communicators, so he picked up valuable tools from them.
“Ultimately, I think it’s about holding onto the good stuff, making sure you don’t repeat the unsuccessful stuff, and then making it your own. Listening is also half the battle,” he says. “Truly hearing others’ perspectives can lead to asking the right questions to move the conversation forward and to better understanding the issue. Giving a speech is a one-sided conversation – others know what you think, and you haven’t gained any insight.”
One of his greatest communication challenges came in 2009 when the company’s president decided to move onto other opportunities.
“The economy was in free fall and I became the president,” he says. “We had about three months of overlap for the training and while I was pretty familiar with a lot of the company’s operations, there were many day-to-day details I had to learn.”
The business was also contracting, so he didn’t have the luxury of getting it “kinda right.” He had to make hard personnel and financial decisions to ensure the company stayed viable. There were many long, hard hours and sleepless nights, but through it all, they emerged stronger, more focused and cohesive.
A long-term legacy. The company has been around for nearly 120 years and Kroeker says that kind of legacy definitely changes how a leader leads. He makes an effort to take the perspective of what will be the best for the company in the long-term. He takes that same approach when working with clients. For example, he was once asked to do a project and talked the owner out of it because it wasn’t the best long-term solution.
He attributes 19six Architects’ longevity to empowerment, autonomy, opportunity, and teamwork along with:
- Creating a work environment where people can learn, grow professionally, and are engaged. Two of the defined metrics for leadership advancement are sales and revenue amounts and leadership is based on performance, not tenure.
- Hiring smart people and giving them the tools they need to succeed.
- No micromanaging.
- Encouraging everyone to train their replacement so they can move onto the next step in their career.
- An open-door policy for “boomerang” employees (of which they’ve seen many).
- Stability and financial strength.
- Stock purchase program. Once a year, shares are offered to all employees. The number of shares is tiered and allows everyone the ability to own a “piece of the pie.” (More than 40 percent of its employees are shareholders.)
The company does a yearly valuation, internally, that’s used to adjust the share price. Every three years it checks that valuation with an outsourced consultant. The valuation formula takes into account equity, backlog, three-year weighted earnings and a variety of strength/risk factors. Every seven years, it does an averaging and price reduction since its shares are only offered internally.
“It’s interesting, but for years 19six operated like many smaller businesses, focusing on maximizing the principals’ personal wealth and minimizing tax obligations. So, for close to 100 years, the coffers were emptied each year, and we never built up any equity. That started to change in the mid-2000s. We realized that to grow, we needed to build equity in the company,” he says.
A favorite project. Kroeker believes that learning and education are fundamental foundations of society, and he finds it exciting to create spaces that enhance learning. One of the projects that stands out most for him was his son’s elementary school.
The campus was aging and hadn’t seen any improvements in years. 19six focused on transforming the classrooms that had yellowing luminous ceilings and inoperable windows in addition to a central two-pipe hydronic HVAC system that couldn’t respond to various classroom cooling and heating needs. During site investigations, they found some wonderful, site-built trusses as the roof structure and used them to their advantage to open up the ceiling volume. This also allowed them to install operable skylights for natural light to the non-window side of the back-to-back classrooms and, along with new operable windows, provided cross ventilation. Individual package units were installed, as well as ceiling fans, to provide thermal comfort.
“The most fulfilling part was after the project was completed,” Kroeker says. “We received thank you notes from the students, and every one of them had a picture of the ceiling fans; they made quite an impression!”
When Kroeker retires he says he’d like to be remembered for transforming the company’s operating strategy to build equity and strengthening its balance sheet, which has allowed it to grow from 15 to 125 people; to expanding its geographic reach from two offices to eight; and to growing its revenue tenfold.
Until then, he’ll continue leading and working on projects that enrich the community.