Matchmaker: Neil Terry

Sep 11, 2022

Partner at Orcutt | Winslow (Phoenix, AZ), a design firm that aspires to positively disrupt architecture through innovation, experimentation, and invention.

By Liisa Andreassen

As partner at Orcutt | Winslow, Terry has helped to develop a strong customer-focused environment with an emphasis on developing trends in design. He found his pathway to architecture through his love of general and technical design work. He takes a hands-on approach with his team to deliver personalized service to clients and works to build relationships with people in the communities they serve.

“Hire the right people and give them the tools they need and get out of their way,” Terry says. “Being a good matchmaker helps too. Pair the right people with the right position. I really enjoy doing what I do.”

A conversation with Neil Terry.

The Zweig Letter: Your bio says that “as partner at Orcutt | Winslow , you’ve helped to develop a strong customer-focused environment with an emphasis on developing trends in design.” Tell me about a recent design trend. How did it evolve? What is it?

Neil Terry: There’s been funding from the federal VA for a new type of VA community. As a result, we’re doing a lot with veteran homes with the small house/greenhouse concept at the core of the design. It’s a concept that combines households and community areas. It reduces operational cost and increases efficiency. With a centralized community center, veterans live within neighborhoods that are subdivided into household wings. Residents have private bedrooms and bathrooms and each household has dedicated dining, kitchen, den, sitting lounges, living and outdoor patio areas so people can build community and join in activity at every level. Building materials complement existing area architecture and gardens are designed throughout to form a connection to nature and purpose with shaded seating areas, gathering areas, paths for walking, gardens, benches, and café tables.

We also recently won a project in southern Utah for a planned community for a manufacturing company. Since rent has gone crazy, companies are having trouble finding staff who can afford to live near where they work. The community is designed for the company’s workers and includes things like a town square where staff can live, work, and play. We’ve also been approached by schools to do similar housing plans for their teachers.

TZL: Your firm has experienced fast growth. What’s been the greatest challenge here and how have you met it?

NT: Acquisition integration. It’s a challenge in all areas from processes and cultures to geographic locations. We don’t want to turn into a large corporation. When we acquire a new office, we try to get someone who has been with the company for some time to relocate to that office in order to help speed integration.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

NT: Being authentic and interested are the most important. You also need to make it about the client – not about yourself. Be up-front and work to solve problems together.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

NT: We are a firm that focuses on family events at work. We also send packets out to staff spouses on Valentine’s Day thanking them for their patience, etc. On Father’s Day we send out six-packs of beer, in addition to other small tokens of appreciation throughout the year.

TZL: Your professional focus is on thought leadership in healthcare, senior living, and working in Native American communities. How do you think these sectors will change over say the next 10 years? I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but in your opinion, what’s going to be different compared to how these communities function today?

NT: There are more and more casinos being added to support Native American communities. When thinking about senior living, COVID was not kind to these communities. People started wondering if these settings were actually safe and healthy due to the spread of COVID and isolation. Are these good places to be during a pandemic? We’re working on ways to mitigate that and coming up with ways for residents to communicate and be safe without having to be so isolated. COVID was a wake-up call that we have to do better.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

NT: People skills and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done. You have to be willing to step forward and not wait for an assignment. “It’s not my job” has no place. I picked up many of these skills as I grew in my career. When the other managing partner and I took over in 2008, I thought, “OK. What now?” I worked on my business development skills and set expectations to a reasonable level. You’re likely not going to close a deal over one lunch.

TZL: Your sustainability action plan is a work in progress. What updates have been made recently? Why?

NT: A sustainability action plan should be an overarching goal for all. We’re constantly updating it with new programs and systems being offered in living buildings, working with the Green Building Council, and blending it all together into one healthy living concept with the end goal being a “well community.” The challenge has always been cost and then finding ways to convince companies/people that the cost outweighs the life cycle benefit.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

NT: A gung-ho one! Hire the right people and give them the tools they need and get out of their way. Being a good matchmaker helps too. Pair the right people with the right position. I really enjoy doing what I do.

TZL: As managing partner, take me through a “typical” day. Do you focus more on firm management or specific projects?

NT: It really depends on the day. Business development is my top priority. I also follow-up with teams to make sure all is running smoothly and check in with my partners to ensure our strategic goals are being met. Business management is not what I went to school for, so I continue to learn and really enjoy the project planning aspect. From time to time, I may layout some designs and ideas that help to drive a design forward.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

NT: When I first joined the firm there were still certain levels. You got paid more as you put in your time and rose through the ranks. The younger generation wants to know how to advance quickly. We follow the AIA’s system pretty closely where they identify different roles and levels. It holds their feet to the fire.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?

NT: We’ve been very fortunate to have founding partners from 50 years ago who came up with a clear path forward to ensure longevity through a performance bonus system. A buy-in to ownership started in 1995. Be careful about buying ownership when someone leaves as it changes structure. Having a vested interest helps.

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

NT: Employee engagement. We stress that this is more than just a place to work. We have things like Good News Thursdays and Taco Tuesdays. We’ve had some people leave the firm, but they’ve come back because they miss the culture and camaraderie. We also have competitive salaries and benefits. 

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.