Responsibility: Neal McFarlane

Mar 26, 2023

President and CEO of McFarlane Architects, a dynamic architectural, planning, and interior design firm that provides innovative design solutions to its clients.

By Liisa Andreassen

McFarlane has been in the architectural field for close to 40 years. When he started McFarlane Architects (San Diego, CA) in 2003, he was committed to creating a company that would function like a family. He continues to work to achieve that every day.

“I seek input from staff depending on the issue as I like to hear their perspectives,” McFarlane says. “But at the end of the day, I am the one responsible for the firm’s success and the decisions need to be mine. I cannot blame others if something goes wrong; I take responsibility.”

A conversation with Neal McFarlane.

The Zweig Letter: As the sole owner of McFarlane Architects (MA), how would you describe your company’s culture? How do you maintain that culture?

Neal McFarlane: I’ve structured our brand to be known for its design skills, expertise in life science facilities, professionalism, quality of service, and ability to lead complex projects. The end goal is to create a reputation of dependability, leading to long-term client relationships.

From the beginning, I committed myself to the initial stage of each project so I could share my experience and get it going in the right direction. Internally, I wanted to establish a highly-functioning family. I wanted MA to provide career opportunities and to give people the tools needed to perform at their highest level while maintaining a positive work-life balance. To achieve this, I invest in each person and the firm – collectively. I ensure people understand their assignments and expectations. We work to support each other.

As we’ve grown, maintaining company culture takes effort. I’m still involved at the initial stage of new projects, but I rely on senior staff, many of whom have 15-20 or more years of experience working with me, to complete the projects. I also rely on senior staff to do a lot of the daily mentoring and training. It seems to be working; we’ve only lost four employees over the last eight years.

TZL: What space do you really admire – something that was designed by someone else? Why?

NM: The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, designed by the renowned architect Louis Kahn. Jonas Salk gave Kahn specific requirements for the project that had not been the norm for research facilities at the time. Salk wanted these labs to be open, spacious, and easy to renovate as new discoveries and technologies advanced. The buildings were to be logically organized, simple, durable, timeless, and require minimal maintenance. Aesthetically, the spaces were to be bright and welcoming – an inspiring environment for the researchers who would work there. The number of design awards that the Salk Institute has received are a testament to the quality of the design and the success of Kahn’s work.

TZL: How has COVID-19 permanently impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

NM: When everyone was working from home during the pandemic, there was less collaborating, less synergy between teams, less mentoring, and we lost some of our culture. It was especially hard for new employees to get to know people, learn our system, and become part of the family.

However, during the pandemic we also grew beyond what we could accommodate in the office. Fortunately, the suite next door became available and we were able to expand. When that completed in May of 2022, I asked everyone to return to the office full-time so we could begin collaborating again. That said, I also recognize that sometimes being able to focus with fewer interruptions is needed, and there is the need to handle things that come up at home, etc., so our policy permits everyone to telecommute one day a week.

I believe it’s important for the younger generation to be in the office. They’re still developing work ethics and habits and need to be around those who have already established theirs. They need to learn how to interact with others and develop relationships. Being isolated at home does not help to achieve these things.

TZL: What prompted you to start your own firm?

NM: I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version. My first job was working for a very small architectural firm. It was a summer job, but gave me valuable insight into the workings of running a small AEC business. I admired the autonomy that the firm owner had and the success he seemed to enjoy.

When I went back to school after that summer, I was still an “undeclared major” and decided to enter the College of Business for my undergraduate degree so I could learn the principles of running a business. While still in school, I was hired by a local firm that specialized in educational and correctional work. This taught me about the importance of field specialization.

Fast forward to 2003, where I was a non-equity principal in a mid-size firm in San Diego. I was involved in an internal ownership transition. I was already well-known in the life science and advanced technology sector; I had my own network, and had been bringing in more work to the firm than I could personally oversee, so I thought the transition would be exactly what I wanted. But the offer that was presented to me was egregiously one-sided. I knew I had to jump ship or start my own firm.

In 2003, I made the leap and opened McFarlane Architects, Inc. Twenty years later, MA is ranked as the 10th largest firm in San Diego by the San Diego Business Journal, the largest firm owed by one person in San Diego, and the 15th largest architectural design firm in the R&D industry by Building Design + Construction.

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

NM: I spend 85-90 percent of my time “in the business.” I credit this to three things:

  1. Our culture of always working to best serve our clients serves as our marketing, so I spend minimal time on marketing new opportunities. I spend most of my time servicing clients, and assisting with high-level programming and conceptual design assistance. We’ve become one of three “go-to” firms in our industry in San Diego.
  2. Because of my business background, setting up the firm was quick and easy; maintaining it has been just as easy.
  3. Having a senior staff that has an average of 18 years of experience working under my leadership makes my job easy.

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

NM: Clients rely on the information we supply, conclusions we arrive at, and the services we provide. Their success or failure is largely based on us. We prioritize exceeding clients’ expectations, at the risk of profitability, and are experts in our field because we work to understand the client’s business, processes, operations, and culture.

We’ve implemented a project management methodology that was proactive in leading design efforts by having inclusive teams of engineers and contractors who would be challenged to come up with solutions to design, procurement, field, or constructability issues. And, when we commit to meet a deadline, we commit the necessary resources to meet that deadline.

We also continually initiate changes to improve our services and have a good rapport with the city building and planning department personnel. This gives us an edge to smoothly navigate processes better than others.

TZL: Where do you see the firm in five years? Geographic growth? Market growth, etc.?

NM: I see a bright future. We will continue to grow organically, and I’m considering external growth opportunities too. We’ve been doing work in the San Francisco life science market since 2011 where we have under design or have completed more than 2 million square feet of work. And last year, at the request of one of our clients, we began doing work in Arizona and Utah – all from our San Diego office.

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

NM: I jokingly describe my leadership style as a benevolent dictator. I’m even tempered and tend to follow my instincts, work the problem, plan for the unexpected, be respectful of others, keep the big picture in focus, lead by example, motivate others, keep an open mind, and have a sense of humor. I seek input from staff depending on the issue as I like to hear their perspectives. But at the end of the day, I am the one responsible for the firm’s success and the decisions need to be mine. I cannot blame others if something goes wrong; I take responsibility.

TZL: What most interests you about life science and advanced technology projects? Where do you see the future of these spaces going?

NM: One of my jobs was with a large architectural firm that specialized in life science and advanced technology facility design. They offered an aggressive career path, and boasted that they survived the recession of the 1990s because their workload was based on the success of the science and technology of their clients. Their workload was more stable and less dependent on the economy. It’s so true. MA has never seen the effects of the previous recessions nor do we today.

For example, on March 12, 2020, the governor of California issued a stay-at-home order and the closure of several industries because of COVID-19. That night, I wrote an email to my staff explaining how we could continue working because the construction industry was granted certain exemptions. I also stated that I was projecting our workload to dramatically increase during the pandemic given our client base and expertise.

In the following months, five of our clients received COVID-19 test kit approvals from the FDA and we had to help get new manufacturing facilities on line in record time. Those facilities now have capacity for more than 2 billion test kits a year. What our clients do is absolutely fascinating, and it’s really satisfying to be a small part of it.

TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure your line leadership are great people managers?

NM: Having been schooled extensively in management in my undergraduate coursework through case studies, I have a good understanding of management, and even though I think of MA as one big happy family, even happy families are imperfect. So, I’ve tried to use the firm’s culture to help guide the management approach and interactions of everyone – not just senior staff. I impress on everyone to build relationships and treat others with the same respect and honesty that they want. I also try to align the right skills and personalities of senior staff with clients, and the same concerning staff assignments with senior staff. In our monthly staff meetings, I take time to share principles of management and architecture so everyone can hear from me where I stand, how I approach issues, and what I am trying to achieve. 

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