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The Genesis AEC Culture: Trust and Collaboration

Zweig Group interviewed Genesis AEC leaders: Meryl Towarnicki, AIA, EVP, Architectural and Engineering Services, and Norm Goldschmidt, President, about topics that spanned the foundation of Genesis Architects; the company’s approach to customer relationships; and industry challenges, while delving into culture aspects such as trust, training, diversity, change management, and mentorship.

“We try to empathize with our clients’ challenges to help them be successful,” Norm Goldschmidt says. “It’s not just a client/service provider relationship, rather we’re colleagues and peers. By looking at the relationship that way, it makes us more invested in the outcome. We’re not just providing a service; we’re an extension of our clients and we help them achieve their goals.”

ZG: Meryl, you founded Genesis Architects back in 2013, rounding out Genesis A&E. How did that come about?

Meryl Towarnicki: I was looking for something new and seeking to make a greater impact in our industry. Genesis wanted to become a full-service company, offering both architecture and engineering services to our clients. I had a lot of friends and colleagues at Genesis who shared the same customer-centric style, which made Genesis a great cultural fit for me. Since becoming a full-service firm, with the addition of architecture, then soon after, process engineering and process architecture, the size, quantity, and complexity of our projects have changed. There is nowhere else I’d rather be.

ZG: Norman, how has your experience as an internationally recognized life sciences expert benefited Genesis’ clients? What’s an example?

Norm Goldschmidt: It’s not just about my direct involvement with each client, but the culture we built and the training we do with our staff. We not only expose our staff to difficult cGMP projects and the constraints that they need to work within, but help them to understand the principles that are at play, and allow them the space to develop their own sense of design. We have a behind the curtain look at the industry’s latest trends, designs, and best practices by being involved in the international cGMP manufacturing community.

ZG: Your website says that Genesis’ core values “lay the groundwork for a strong family-oriented work environment.” How do you achieve this and what are some examples?

Towarnicki: One of the hardest things for a professional to do is balance their work and their home lives. We’ve always understood this and we’re working to make it easier for our employees. We’ve offered an even more flexible work schedule, outside the traditional 9-5 environment, while still meeting the needs of our clients. We don’t always get it right, but we want to help our employees find a balance that works for them.

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

Towarnicki: Our business is built on trust and relationships, particularly through the repeat business from core clients. You earn that trust by being an expert, being knowledgeable about what you do, and being honest even if that means the client doesn’t need us for a particular piece of a project. When a client trusts you, they know they can count on you to tell them the truth, whether it’s good or bad news. As a result, trust becomes a responsibility. You must work even harder to stay on that level.

ZG: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

Goldschmidt: Empathy, that’s probably the most important skill. We try to empathize with our clients’ challenges to help them be successful. It’s not just a client/service provider relationship, rather we’re colleagues and peers. By looking at the relationship that way, it makes us more invested in the outcome. We’re not just providing a service; we’re an extension of our clients and we help them achieve their goals. As a mechanical engineer, there’s not much more I can hope to do than to contribute to people’s lives, and I get to do that here by helping our clients serve patients.

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

Goldschmidt: The world is changing. When I started in business, I was taught that companies should not become involved in politics, social issues, or the like. In the world we live in today, to be silent is to abdicate our responsibility not only as an organization, but as a group of people. With the events of last summer, and on into this year, we at Genesis are reimagining what the role of a company is and how we can best reflect the concerns, needs, and passions of our community.

ZG: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.

Towarnicki: For Genesis, change management is a daily conversation because of how quickly we have grown. We are not who we were in 2012 at 72 people, we’re not who we were in 2016 at 150 people. When you add new people quickly to the mix and change the volume of work you do, there’s a lot happening at once. Given our growth combined with remote working and how busy our industry (pharma) is, our leadership is handling this well. Despite the fact that we haven’t been in this exact position before, we’re used to hitting curveballs and looking at how we can do things differently to ensure the quality of the services we deliver, while preserving the joy in the work we do.

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

Goldschmidt: I think the thing people get most excited about is having interesting and meaningful work. Architects, engineers, and constructors have plenty of opportunities in a variety of industries, but to use our skills in the service of mankind, helping other people and improving their lives – it just doesn’t get any better than that. They get excited about the challenges – the difficult and technical work – but it’s also so incredibly rewarding to do. The satisfaction of knowing that we are in some way contributing to everyone’s lives – that’s priceless.

ZG: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?

Goldschmidt: This concept is almost entirely foreign to me – the idea that a portion of the business might not be pulling their weight. I think it’s because we have senior principals on our executive committee running each of the services we provide, who are all so closely engaged with the operations of their business units, that it’s not really been an issue for us. While I’m the titular president of this company, we run under a very collaborative model, and do all our planning and evaluation as a team. If we found a unit in trouble, we would all dig in together to help solve the problem.

ZG: 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?

Goldschmidt: For me, several people come to mind, each of them taught me a key principle that I use every day.

  • Andy Hahn was an architect I worked with at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS). His door was always open, and he always made it seem as if my problems and questions were the most important thing he was dealing with.
  • Tom Lyon was the VP of Global Engineering at BMS, and he taught me the value of humility, and listening to others. When I was young, I thought that Tom didn’t have an opinion, maybe didn’t have the technical knowledge to contribute to the conversation, it was only later that I realized he was smart enough to listen to others before solidifying his opinion.
  • The last is Sterling Kline, an industry icon, whose unique ability to find and bring out the best in everyone he worked with is something I strive to emulate to this day. Sterling is an expert who never makes the conversation about him, he’s always seeking to elevate others.

Towarnicki: I think mentors come in many forms – some teach us what or how to do things, and from others we learn what not to do – it all contributes to who we’ve become as leaders.

  • Walter E. Greene was my college professor. Walt worked for a construction management firm and he hired me one summer as “Clerk of the Works” on a project he was running. He taught me to pay attention to details and to have a keen awareness of my surroundings on a construction site. It was also that summer that it clicked for me how a drawing became realized in the field.
  • Charlie Johnsrud was founder of Johnsrud Architects (now Bergmann). Charlie gave me entry into the pharma bio industry, and it was there that I learned and honed my skills as a lab planner and architect. Charlie had a knack for analyzing complex data and presenting results and solutions in a way that made it easy for a client to understand, a practice that I learned and still emulate today.

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

Goldschmidt: It’s not one thing, but if I had to boil it down, I think I would say that it’s building a culture that people stay engaged with. It includes how we treat people; it includes the kind of challenging/exciting work that we have; it includes how we compensate them; it includes how we help them to grow.

Towarnicki: The hardest part of our job is the replication of best practices. We are fortunate enough to have many staff who have “stuck around” since the company was founded. I think they are still here because they believe in the message – provide quality service – and live by example. People often need a message they can believe in, and when you have staff who continue to reinforce and pass down the same practices to a new generation of architects and engineers, the firm’s legacy will live on. It becomes part of your culture. Sometimes the message is simply, “let me show you” or “we do it like this.”

Originally published in the The Zweig Letter.

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