The human factor: Mike DeRouin

Aug 01, 2021

President at FitzGerald (Chicago, IL), a nationally recognized architecture firm with roots dating back more than 100 years.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

DeRouin has guided a broad range of project teams in the design of complex, mixed-use buildings that accommodate commercial office tenants; affordable and market-rate multifamily residences at every scale; neighborhood and big box retail; and parking uses. He also has considerable experience converting existing obsolete buildings to new commercial and residential uses. He’s a professional problem solver and offers himself as a consultant and mentor both in and out of the workplace.

“We try to communicate with staff on a deeper level, so we become an engaging work place,” DeRouin says. “They’re not just an asset. You can’t lose sight of the human factor. If they want to grow, they have a path here to do it.”

A conversation with Mike DeRouin.

The Zweig Letter: Your bio states that you have a great deal of experience with converting obsolete buildings into new commercial and residential spaces. Can you give me an example of a favorite project and tell me why it tops your list?

Mike DeRouin: I love putting new life into old buildings and there’s so much potential with current building construction technology. The Stoney Island Arts Bank is a project that springs to mind. Fitzgerald worked with artist and community leader Theaster Gates and Catapult Real Estate Development on the rehabilitation of the Stony Island State Savings Bank building located in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood. We were tasked with coordinating the rehabilitation of the three-story, 26,700-square-foot building, which was rescued from demolition in 2012 by Gates after standing vacant for more than 20 years. FitzGerald developed plans to rejuvenate the building in support of Gates’ vision that the site flourish as a hub for creative and cultural activities and create an anchor in the neighborhood. We’re also working to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Some prospective uses include a restaurant with culinary training facilities; artists’ studios and offices; exhibit spaces; and a library housing the collection of John H. Johnson, the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines. Special plans have been made to restore the building’s 780-square-foot basement bank vault, which may be used as a special gathering space.

TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

MD: Like many firms, we’re designing more of a hybrid office. We’re in the process of moving our office into the heart of downtown Chicago, so the timing is right. We dipped our toe in the water two years ago with working from home and we now know that with the right technology, it’s possible. Between the cloud and Microsoft Teams we saw very few glitches. When we do move into our new office space, we’ll be in the office three days a week and at home the rest of the time. The goal is seamless integration between participants from wherever they are – local or remote – through the latest integrated digital collaboration tools. This new office gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our belief in the future of workplace design and will be a sort of showroom for our design ideas.

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

MD: All of our managers have one-on-one conversations with their team members on a weekly basis for 20-30 minutes. Sometimes it’s about work, sometimes it’s not. This helps to build better relationships among the team and ensures that the lines of communication are open. It’s also important to make sure that people understand why things happen. They have a better buy-in then. We also have an annual advance, and quarterly follow-ups that all firm leaders attend. It’s key to spend time together in order to grow together.

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

MD: I believe this is a unique challenge for the overall industry. When I was in school, at least 50 percent of the people going into the industry were women. Now, it’s more like 10 percent. I’m not sure why that is. At our firm, Kathy Graham, the COO, recently became an owner. As an industry, we need to show more examples of women-driven leadership. We’re also focusing on how to bring more people of color into the room. We have consultations about places to recruit; are involved in the ACE Mentor Program of America which is a free after school program targeting high school kids interested in careers in the AEC industry; and are active in the Newhouse and Future City competitions. We also hired a company to provide cultural awareness training.

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.

MD: We provide a flexible work environment and are accelerating training and sharing of information. We’re constantly having discussions about how to win work, project planning, and profitability. Everything changes so quickly so you have to stay as current as possible. The main challenge of investing in the next generation is to explain how and why work happens. They don’t teach the “why” in school regarding why certain things happen. We try to communicate with staff on a deeper level, so we become an engaging work place. They’re not just an asset. You can’t lose sight of the human factor. If they want to grow, they have a path here to do it. We’re also focused on their safety and wellness.

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

MD: We’ve been very fortunate here. The average tenure is five years. We have the most consistent and talented group of designers. Many other firms harp on the idea of staff members having to “pay their dues” before moving into other roles. We don’t. We provide opportunities and we also open our Design Lab meetings to everyone in the firm. If someone would like to offer an opinion, or just sit in and listen, they’re welcome to. We provide as much interactions on projects as they can handle and pride ourselves on forming strong teams. We want them to see the great designs that come out of working together well as a team. It provides ownership of the work they do.

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

MD: Our recruitment is mostly based on referrals. We tend to get many people who are first-job changers. They tend to resonate with us well. Quite often, they go to work for a firm that they think is what they want and then they realize they want something different. Here, we don’t have a studio system. We combine client relationships with project skills and work to make a proactive building team. The teams change for projects and we have cross training too. It keeps things interesting.

TZL: The firm has a more than 100 year history. Impressive! What are you doing to ensure the firm continues to lead the way into the future while keeping an eye on its past?

MD: We have big shoes to fill. We’ve always had a hand in multi-family housing which is going to become more and more interesting post-COVID. It’s not just about creating housing. It’s about creating sustainable architecture and design too. We’re actively pursuing work in Washington, D.C. which has helped to bolster our commercial building development and we’re starting a new office in Denver. We’re slowly working our way out west and have projects in Phoenix right now. We’re growing into a national design firm with a great deal of diversity.

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?

MD: Pat FitzGerald, the firm’s founder. He hired me as an intern and gave me more opportunities than I could have ever asked for. I try to do the same for others today. He was insightful and inspirational and a true agent of change.

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

MD: We celebrate lessons learned every week with what we call “gold bricks.” This helps everyone to share and learn from mistakes. It’s the greatest mistake not to share mistakes. Mistakes largely happen in isolation so the more checks and balances you have in a group, the better off you are – safety in numbers as they say.

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