Relentless persistence: Russell DiNardo

Feb 12, 2023

President and founder of ThinkForm Architects (Hopewell, NJ), a service-disabled veteran owned architecture and interior design firm specializing in “total environments.”

By Liisa Andreassen

DiNardo strongly believes in an integrated, collaborative approach to design and, as a service-disabled veteran, he brings a unique perspective to the craft as an architect and designer for healing environments.

“We’ve been fortunate to have experienced substantial revenue growth over the past four years despite the pandemic,” DiNardo says. “To achieve this growth, we’ve remained dedicated to design excellence and we’ve had a very focused strategic business plan that has been communicated by leadership and supported by staff. I still strongly believe that dedicated, rigorous work and thoughtful preparation are essential to success and one’s ability to effectively react to opportunity and ‘luck.’”

A conversation with Russell DiNardo.

The Zweig Letter: How has your experience in the military affected how you do business at ThinkForm? What’s the greatest lesson that’s carried over?

Russell DiNardo: I decided on military service to be a part of something bigger than myself and founding ThinkForm was an extension of that ideal, while bringing diverse individuals together. We use our talents to collectively serve others by applying our knowledge to create extraordinary places that balance functionality, budget, and beauty. There are many lessons learned from military service that carry over, from leadership and precision to persistence through challenges and adversity. However, for me, the greatest lesson is others before self.

TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?

RD: I’m fortunate to have had several. These mentors range from a military colleague, a pastor dedicated to social service, a college professor, an architect colleague, an industry insider, and an industry outsider. They all had one thing in common – the ability to make me see beyond myself, question the status quo and to be an active participant in leaving a place better. They each possessed a genuine care for bigger causes and helping others, and gave me tremendous awareness that there are people who truly care for their fellow humans. They’ve also taught me to be an ambassador of positivity for the causes and organizations I support – professional or personal.

TZL: You’ve recently been recognized for your firm’s growth and management. To what do you most attribute that recognition?

RD: I attribute it to my business partner, Michael Crackel, our talented staff, and trusting clients, along with our relentless persistence to improve every day. We’ve been fortunate to have experienced substantial revenue growth over the past four years despite the pandemic. To achieve this growth, we’ve remained dedicated to design excellence and we’ve had a very focused strategic business plan that has been communicated by leadership and supported by staff. I still strongly believe that dedicated, rigorous work and thoughtful preparation are essential to success and one’s ability to effectively react to opportunity and “luck.”

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

RD: Despite the common “wisdom” of analysis to this very topic, ThinkForm’s most significant revenue growth has been in the years that seemingly have me working on the business more than in the business, at least versus previous years. Although I do recognize the importance of both, my shift occurred after being awarded an executive MBA certificate course through the Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders program in 2015. As a licensed architect, licensed interior designer, and LEED accredited professional, my professional passion is design and we have set goals on how to play a larger role in the capacity of a designer. However, ThinkForm places high value on principal-level client involvement from start to finish, and for us that begins pre-proposal stage. Therefore, I would argue that as architects we need to shift the conversation from “in/on the business” to the reality of what is required to build a brand that just so happens to allow us to practice and contribute our craft. This seems to be less of a question or analysis of whether I’m an entrepreneur or a licensed professional. Nonetheless, I am “in the business” daily and as the president and founder, I am “on the business” – also daily.

TZL: What are your tips for managing growth?

RD: Create a detailed plan pertaining to what, when, where, who, and how. Surround yourself with talent, collaborate, listen, lead decisively, delegate, thoughtfully plan for tomorrow, and energetically live for today.

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

RD: Just as ThinkForm’s principal-level client involvement begins pre-proposal, so does trust. This begins with the integrity of the ThinkForm team, including its principals. One may argue that it’s easier to make money in the AEC industry by going along with every “questionable” offer that comes one’s way. It’s important to not lose sight of your moral compass in business. I’ve lost count of “opportunities” I’ve passed on if only I would look the other way. With 29 years of experience in the AEC industry, I’m comfortable being honest with potential clients and current clients, whether it’s about their program, schedule, budget, or anything else pertaining to our expertise. We’ve won some and lost some based on this philosophy, however, it’s resulted in exceptional relationships and recommendations. Where others may tell a potential or current client what they think the client wants to hear or provide a proposal with more pages of exclusions rather than what’s required of the project, ThinkForm has earned trust by doing just the opposite. I’m often asked, “What makes a great project?” My response is always “a great client.”

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

RD: Without family support, my career wouldn’t be possible. I’m grateful for my great-grandparents who immigrated to the United States with the vision of providing a better life for their descendants. Their bravery and courage alone serves as my daily inspiration to continue their vision for those who come after me. While no family members are employed by ThinkForm, my career, and theirs, often overlap because architecture, art, and design started, for me, as a dream and passion that, today, is inherent in my lifestyle. When my children were younger, there were times when the family would accompany “dad” on an architectural “treasure hunt” to see a newly opened building not necessarily designed by me or the firm. My children were both born shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Upon the 2014 completion of the Freedom Tower and 9/11 memorial in New York City, I had the opportunity to “bring my child to work” by taking the day with them in Manhattan and to those sites to explain the significance of architecture, and not only why someone would target architecture, but why, as a society, we rebuild.

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

RD: These are similar to my tips for managing growth – listening, leadership, and decision making. A mentor once pointed out to me that, “There are those who are happy to be called president of any company whose revenue is one dollar a year, year after year, and those who are vested to growing a successful brand that will outlast them with care for their product, staff, clients, and society. Beware of the former.” This comment was made in reference to a potential employer, but also applies to potential partners, consultants, and clients. It’s a bit of a skill to navigate between the former and the latter, all the while creating cash flow to be the brand one truly wants to be. Starting out, I wish I would have known the AEC industry is a marathon while running a sprint.

TZL: Designing healing environments seems to be something you’re passionate about. Can you give me a recent example of a project that accomplished this goal?

RD: ThinkForm strives to create environments that support health and wellness regardless of market sector. We want to create places that make people feel good and ultimately smile. While we’ve had the opportunity to design for commercial, hospitality, government, multi-family, education, and healthcare, it’s been a great honor and privilege to create healing environments for my fellow service-disabled veterans. Soon to open is a 20,000-square-foot in-patient mental health department at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Bronx, New York, that will provide much needed safe and secure patient and treatment space veterans, work areas for healthcare professionals, and common areas for guests and family. After much research and collaboration with stakeholder groups, ThinkForm developed a design that integrates a “central park” theme in its plan, organization, texture, and material while accommodating very stringent Veterans Mental Health Design Guidelines. In addition, ThinkForm designed the Center for Innovation, Health, and Wellness at the VAMC in East Orange, New Jersey, which supported a cultural transformation to promote health, wellness, prevention, and healing. At the completion of this project, I had a chance encounter with a veteran and his healthcare provider who had just entered the interior corridor from a ThinkForm designed exterior courtyard with a water feature, plantings, and patterned landscape. Not knowing I was involved in its design, he told me he had just had his best session in the outdoor space. He suggested I go into the courtyard. His response validated our purpose and commitment to health and wellness.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

RD: If failure is a great teacher, it’s also one of my mentors. It’s not so much complete failure as achieving less than one hundred percent of goals. Throughout my life and career, from military service to architecture, I’ve been more inspired than deterred by those who told me, “You can’t, you’ll never, you should reconsider your choices.” The biggest lesson I’ve learned the hard way is that business ownership is very different than being just an architect. From finance to staff labor law, learn to partner with talented consultants with expertise outside of your own.

TZL: Where do you see ThinkForm in the next five years? What are your top goals?

RD: To continue our growth geographically while obtaining larger projects across all market sectors and continue to enhance the ThinkForm brand. ThinkForm’s top goals include expanding our C-suite, acquiring and retaining top talent, and expanding our services.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

RD: ThinkForm is an equal opportunity employer and participant in the U.S. Federal E-Verify program. We welcome all qualified individuals. Most important, our statistics reinforce ThinkForm’s diversity in that our team is 40 percent female, 40 percent minority, and 30 percent military veterans. ThinkForm’s key decision makers are 30 percent female, 30 percent minority, and 50 percent military veterans. Last month, LaShaun Key, an architect at ThinkForm, was recognized by the Charleston Area Black Caucus as one of 40 “Pros to Know.” Like myself, LaShaun is a service-disabled veteran and licensed architect passionate about design and the business of architecture. As one of our top priorities for 2023 is to grow our staff and our C-suite, we will strive to seek candidates from diverse resources, including historically underrepresented universities in which we’re currently building relationships.  

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