Earlier this month, global design firm HOK announced a leadership change, with then-CEO Patrick MacLeamy, FAIA, moving on to serve as chairman, and president and design principal Bill Hellmuth, AIA, stepping up to lead the firm as CEO. We talked with Hellmuth about the planned succession, how his design background stands to impact his leadership initiatives, his familial ties to the firm, advice for emerging practitioners, and more.
Can you talk about the succession process and leadership transition?
We’ve been discussing this for quite some time and have been making joint decisions since we came to the determination that I was going to step into the CEO role. The transition has been really wonderful. I’m still in the honeymoon period, but Patrick was a great CEO. His particular brilliance had to do with the management and finances of the firm, and he got us on wonderful financial footing. We’re very different people and our interests are what we bring to the table. Our fundamental values are almost identical, so that has really helped in the transition.
What’s your mindset stepping into the CEO position after previously serving as president and design principal?
Many large firms, including ours, have been led by design principals. HOK was let by Gyo Obata, FAIA, for two decades, and he was sort of a senior design principal. He left that position in the early 1990s. Now, we’re returning to a designer as the CEO and that allows us as a firm to focus on design excellence as the center of everything we do.
How specifically? I assume design excellence is always in the cards.
It’s always in the cards, but it’s the responsibility of the CEO to set the agenda for the firm, to help allocate resources—whether that’s in things like parametric modeling, getting the right computer systems, investing in 3D printers, research, whatever support mechanisms the firm needs to drive its design agenda forward. Probably the most important thing, though, is to make sure you have really terrific people heading up various parts of the firm, so determining who those people are and how to advance their careers.
Let’s talk about that first prong—research and resources. What’s on your radar as far as new investment or greater focus?
HOK is a leader in BIM. What we’re going to do now is focus on using the computer tools in the design of the building. How various programs, parametric modeling, and training within the firm can help our professionals use the resources of the computer, the intellectual property around the firm, and pull all of that together to create these wonderful artifacts.
In what geographic markets and project sectors do you see growth opportunities for HOK?
We re-established our sport practice a little over a year ago when we merged with 360 Architecture, which had some original HOK-ers in it. So we’re back in the sport practice. Where growth opportunities occur is not just in sport but the intersection of sport and master planning and what happens when you add a sport venue to an urban district. For example, when the Verizon Center, in Washington, D.C., was built there was not much development around there. That project led to a re-development of that area. I’m thrilled to say we have seven buildings that area that we did within eight years of the Verizon Center's completion. We also recently merged with a [global] hospitality firm [BBG-BBGM] and we’re now looking at the intersection between hospitality and healthcare—how can you do a hospitality overlay on a hospital? How can hospitality intersect with the sport world, and so forth? Our biggest opportunities are where we have these different design focuses that can overlap.
What about regions of the world?
The best market right now is in the United States. I know it doesn’t always feel that way. Asia is going through a contraction. The Arabian Peninsula is transitioning from a purely oil economy to one that will survive [in the longer term]. Dubai, for example, has invented itself on banking, trade, and real-estate tourism. We are seeing these places still building as they grow and their economies change.
You’re based in HOK’s Washington, D.C., office, and HOK is fairly decentralized. How do you manage regional identities among offices and projects around the world?
It’s more of an art than a science. We have 24 offices but 11 large practices—the other offices are part of one of those large practices. The key is to have strong design leadership in each of those studios and to allow them to develop their own client base and to evolve and have a personality of their own. In the early days, HOK was a centrally organized firm, a hub-and-spoke operation with St. Louis in the middle. After 1991, St. Louis stopped being the headquarters and we no longer had one. If you’re in a service profession, like architecture, you’re much better off having a dispersed leadership. Our executives are all in different HOK offices around the world and get together telephonically. We have common values around sustainability and technical excellence and commitment to our urban environments, but we encourage each of those studios to take on their own personality.
Sustainability is a major tenet of HOK’s practice, but it’s a moving target. What are some areas for improvement for the firm?
Fifteen years ago, our approach to sustainability was emotional. Today, it’s scientific. We are able to measure our results and band the offices together to focus on how we can make buildings that are buildings to live in. I would like to see a lot more net-zero projects coming out of the firm. If you told me 10 years ago that the last four speculative office buildings that we did in D.C. would be LEED Platinum, I’d have called you a liar. We’re now able to achieve LEED Platinum on a fairly regular basis and within the economies of investment in buildings.
Your uncle, George Hellmuth, was one of HOK’s founding partners. What effect has that had on your relationship with the firm?
Actually, I didn’t know him until I was an adult. My father died when I was very young and I grew up in Cleveland. I really got to know [George Hellmuth] after I was out of architecture school. The early part of my career was at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. HOK wasn’t even on my radar. After I joined HOK, it was really quite wonderful because I found I had all these relatives that were quite wonderful and it was great to get to know them.
Changing gears, what advice would you give to a recent architecture school graduate who wants to work for a large firm like HOK?
The reason you start at a large firm and the reason that you stay at a large firm are completely different. Any firm has about two years to capture your imagination, and if they don’t, you should probably try something else. When we bring in young, talented, energetic people straight out of school, as I see it, we’ve got a couple years to capture their imagination and then see if it’s all going to work.
What does that mean, “capture their imagination”?
It means finding a piece of the practice that they’re intrigued by and are good at.
What was that for you?
For me, that was doing very complicated high-rise buildings in Manhattan. One of the most interesting of those projects for me was a building called 780 Third Avenue, which was 50 stories with a very tiny floor plate; I had the opportunity to work with Fazlur Khan, who was one of the most brilliant structural engineers of his time. It’s a concrete-tube structure that’s cross-braced. I saw the power of how to take a complicated set of ideas and make them really simple and elegant, combining structural and architectural thinking to create something.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
There are many talented designers out there but the ones who become terrific architects are the ones that can convince a body of people that the ideas that they’re putting forward are valid. Without that ability, you have a design that sits on a piece of paper and doesn’t go anywhere.
Any other parting thoughts?
There are very few design-oriented large firms that have succeeded their original partners. You can count them on one hand. HOK is now in its fourth or fifth generation of leaders, depending on how you count it, and that’s a pretty terrific thing. My challenge, and our challenge, is to make sure that we are increasingly improving the design quality every single day. Improving the aspirations of our clients, and having them come to the fore in our buildings.
This interview has been edited and condensed.