Steward of the firm: Kevin Eipperle

Jun 05, 2022

President of FEH Design (Dubuque, IA), a full-service architectural, structural engineering, inter design team that’s creating a better world through design.

By Liisa Andreassen

Eipperle first developed an interest in architecture when, at the age of 12, he helped his mother to design a little cabin in the woods. He then went on to help build it with his father and brothers. He was adept at math, art, and details and as time wore on, he decided to blend the three into what would turn into a lifelong career. Today, he and his team generate great design solutions and they have fun doing it. And, he’s doing it at a firm that’s been around since the late 1800s!

“We have existed since the 1800s. The ownership has been passed down successfully for a long time,” Eipperle says. “We are a corporation with 16 shareholders of different levels of stock. We keep an ownership attitude, but also one of stewardship of the firm.”

A conversation with Kevin Eipperle.

The Zweig Letter: Collaboration and teamwork seem important to you. Can you tell me about a recent brainstorming session that was particularly inspirational and why?

Kevin Eipperle: One great example is during the design of the new Galesburg Public Library. The design team was getting together to generate ideas for making the children’s area special. One of us mentioned the idea of connecting a theme to the community. Carl Sandburg was a resident, and we got the idea to connect him as a famous local author to the library. A couple of his children’s books had great stories and we each just kept building on each other’s ideas in an excited and intelligent way. It got everyone energized about the whole area of the building. The client loved the connections too.

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

KE: One of the things that we love most about design is the collaboration. Collaborating remotely is not as efficient or productive. You lose the energy that you get from working shoulder to shoulder when you are working virtually. Remote workers lose the opportunity to learn by being around the veterans. It is clear that any designer working remotely will have a truncated learning and training experience. Their counterparts will get more experience, learn more, and build stronger relationships, and be at an advantage over them. We believe that any firms that embrace remote working on a large scale for long-term solutions will not be as well positioned, with experienced staff, to serve their clients. We have not changed any policies for that beyond the COVID needs.

TZL: When did you become president? What was your role prior to that and when did you start with the company?

KE: It became official in January 1992, but it was decided a couple of years earlier as a part of our transition planning. That gave me lots of time to learn the role. I started with FEH Design in September 2011 by starting a branch office in my home. We built the office one staff member at a time as we grew our client base. Within six months we landed a $30 million project. I have managed this office since then.

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

KE: Even though I serve as president, I spend most of my time serving our clients or getting new clients. Our leadership culture at FEH Design has always been that way. We are all architects, and we love the work.

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

KE: Honest communication is the base of any relationship. Some grey hair is one way, but real experience and friendship is better. Friendship is built on trust. If you make a sale for a project, you can make some money, but if you make a friend, you can earn a fortune in every way.

TZL: What’s your overall, number one priority for the firm right now?

KE: Like most other firms, staffing is critical. We lost a few staff due to retirements and transition to other firms recently, so we are building an elite team across our four locations. The integration of key staff at appropriate office locations keeps us all focused on a single entity/one company mindset. That is a key to sustaining our 125-year-old firm.

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

KE: Diversity is all relative. Things are a lot different than they were 40 years ago. When I graduated from college, there were no female architecture students in my class. They had either dropped out, went to another school, or changed majors. There were, however, many nationalities represented. Twenty years ago, I served on an advisory council for a college of architecture. We recognized that we could not hire for diversity as a profession unless a diverse population was graduating from colleges. At the university advisory council, it became clear that we could not recruit a diverse population of students unless those high school students saw role models and they were encouraged by practicing architects to pursue our field. We currently engage high school students through a BSA Scouts Career Exploring program and we sponsor an Explorer Post in our office to teach about architecture and engineering. In the past we have even taught architecture classes to elementary school students. There is gender equity in the firm and the ownership is balancing as well.

TZL: What’s one of the greatest challenges you see ahead for the industry as a whole? How is your company working to meet that challenge?

KE: I think an important one is creating work-life balance. Architects have a habit of putting in lots of time every week. There are many factors driving that, from passion about the art of creation, to serving our clients at the highest level, to keeping our bottom line strong. Balancing that with personal time to recharge and enjoy family is critical, especially considering all the demographic balancing in the profession.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

KE: At the start of the year, we talked about benefits with each staff member. We wanted to be sure we were providing what people need and want. We looked at everything. Compensation is, of course, critical, but people want trust in flexibility. That trust has to be a two-way thing. It is also true that we have great benefits in healthcare and the like, so those things may get taken for granted by some.

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?

KE: With FEH design, there is pressure to be sustainable in our practice. We have existed since the 1800s. The ownership has been passed down successfully for a long time. We are a corporation with 16 shareholders of different levels of stock. We keep an ownership attitude, but also one of stewardship of the firm. We give nice bonuses at the end of the year to staff who are key to our success for that year. We are strong financially and we offer ownership to staff members who prove themselves.

TZL: The SPARKs sessions are interesting. How did the idea come about and how long has the company been doing them?

KE: A SPARK session is a fast-paced, engaging, and highly-focused design process. We’ve been using public and private SPARK sessions for a very long time. On my second day of employment, I was pulled into a full day SPARK workshop while training in another office. It was a great experience. These engaging sessions really set us apart from the competition. We’re a team of SPARK plugs.

TZL: 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?

KE: FEH Design has a policy that includes a long list of performance-based achievements to be considered to be elected an associate principal. At that level, staff are able to purchase small percentages of the company ownership. Years of experience and book of business are not currently written requirements for that advancement but both are certainly considered as a part of the evaluation for advancement. 

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