District Wharf in Southwest Washington, D.C.
Photograph by Jeff Goldberg/Esto, courtesy Perkins Eastman. District Wharf in Southwest Washington, D.C.

Today L. Bradford Perkins, FAIA, and Mary-Jean Eastman, FAIA, co-founders of the 1,000-person international firm Perkins Eastman, announced they are stepping back from day-to-day operations of the firm, naming principal architects Shawn Basler, AIA, and Nick Leahy, AIA, and the firm's general counsel Andrew Adelhardt III as co-CEOs. Perkins and Eastman will stay on as chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, and will continue to practice from Perkins Eastman’s New York City headquarters.

Mary-Jean Eastman
Courtesy Perkins Eastman Mary-Jean Eastman
L. Bradford Perkins
Courtesy Perkins Eastman L. Bradford Perkins

Succession planning can be notoriously difficult for architecture firms—particularly for those that hang their hat on founding principals or whose leader leaves or dies suddenly. Perkins and Eastman—who became partners in the early 1980s after Perkins' firm Perkins Attia transitioned management and Eastman joined—began the conversation of the practice’s second generation of leadership 11 years ago.

“I [was] a partner in an English firm at the beginning of my career, that had gone through the transition badly and barely survived that process,” Perkins tells ARCHITECT. “And I watched my father handle the transition at Perkins+Will—again, it wasn’t handled very well.”

The duo studied how other practices such as Ennead Architects (previously the Polshek Partnership), SmithGroup, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill approached these transitions. With the understanding that buy-in from the next generation of leadership is crucial, Perkins and Eastman started by spreading ownership of the firm. “Up to that time, we had never insisted that principals in the firm have an ownership position,” Eastman tells ARCHITECT. “But, in fact, it was absolutely essential to spread the ownership in the firm much more widely.” Perkins Eastman is currently owned by 150 shareholders who are firm principals and associate principals.

"Once we made that decision to be employee owned we realized that we also had the obligation to see that the firm would continue past our time leading it," Perkins says.

So the co-founders also began considering candidates for their replacements. “We were looking for people who have the skill sets and also could work together as a team because, frankly, it’s not a job that could be done by one person,” Perkins says.

Andrew Adelhardt III, Nick Leahy, and Shawn Basler
Courtesy Perkins Eastman Andrew Adelhardt III, Nick Leahy, and Shawn Basler

Ultimately, Perkins and Eastman landed on Basler, Leahy, and Adelhardt to share the title of co-CEOs. “The planning was about who were the strongest leaders in the firm,” Eastman says. “They are three people who were natural leaders.”

Basler has been at the firm for 12 years, Leahy for 27 years, and Adelhardt for 12.5 years. All three are based in the firm's New York office.

“We are humbled and excited about the opportunity to build off the strong foundation Brad and Mary-Jean built and lead the firm to realize its fullest potential,” Basler tells ARCHITECT.

“In these last few years, Shawn, Nick, and I have had the good fortune of collaborating quite a bit on various initiatives and issues,” Adelhardt continues. “Little did we know back then it would allow us to forge a strong partnership where we are able to truly balance our strengths and perspectives to guide the firm forward by always putting people first.”

Going forward, Eastman and Perkins will focus on projects about which they are particularly passionate. For Perkins, this means continuing to strengthen the firm’s international presence—it already has offices in Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai, and Guayaquil, Ecuador—and exploring the potential to expand in Canada. Eastman, for her part, will continue to work on healthcare design—her specialty—as well as on equity and diversity efforts within the firm. “We’re bringing in a generation of [people in their] late 30s to mid-40s, and the new crop is really amazing and 60 percent female,” Eastman says.

For both Perkins and Eastman, this also means considering the future generations of leadership to continue their legacy. “We are very much growing the next generation of the firm and thinking about the younger generation,” Eastman says of the firm, “We’re thinking about the third and fourth generation now too.”

Perkins Eastman will remain the name of the firm.