Even for architecture and design companies with the experience and track record of Perkins + Will, establishing a competitive presence in the Middle East can be challenging to say the least. It has not only been able to achieve this (doubling its business each year for the past five) but has also worked on such prestigious projects as the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid football stadium in Dubai, and the regional headquarters of global giants like LinkedIn and Google. Business Review Middle East speaks to Steven Charlton, Principle Managing Director at Perkins + Will and discovers how he has led the company to its enviable position.
With a list of services covering architectural and interior design, strategic and urban planning, landscaping, and branded environments, it is clear why the company has a strong demand in the Middle East. The company’s specialist expertise also covers healthcare, education, corporate, civic, technology, sports and travel verticals.
But faced with a market that necessitates a strong physical presence in order to do business, it was not until five years ago – when its Dubai office was founded – that Perkins + Will was able to scale impressive growth.
"We went from the initial start-up team and we are now touching 100+ people in the Dubai office. It’s been quite an aggressive growth period – especially in the wake of the recession," explains Charlton. "People thought we were crazy but it’s worked out very well."
"We are pretty much doubling every year since we started. We are getting to a comfortable point in the market, and because of this we moved to a new 10,500 square foot office last September and are now working on strategic efficiencies and working smarter and more efficiently."
The company is also refining its internal processes and capabilities in order to deliver on its increasingly strong reputation for effective delivery. He says: "We’ve gone from searching for the next job to a position where clients come to us knowing they get an exceptional standard of design and quality.
"There are of course inefficiencies that arise from doubling every year and we wanted to make sure we are improving everything. From improving the way clients are greeted in the office all the way to the design process and documentation. It’s about looking at every single thing and making them better – marginal gains."
The value of people
In a market crowded with many of the world’s largest architecture and design companies, the need to attract and develop a highly skilled workforce is pressing; Perkins + Will is pursuing this with an innovative approach. Charlton ensures that his workforce is able to develop creativity outside of typical projects and that team members can develop their careers holistically.
"I always say that you’re selling people and their ideas when you sell design," Charlton muses. "The stronger the team you have the wider it goes. We’re bringing in talented new employees in every month - it’s a very dynamic environment.
"If you have exceptional people you get exceptional results; everything becomes a well-oiled machine. We employ the best in the region - people want to join us from other firms," Charlton explains. "We help our people find out what they want to be and then we help them get there.
"We give people opportunities to do interesting projects; we want our people to try things and experiment. We also ensure that there are experienced people around them to keep them in the right direction and reign them back when needed."
With offices in every global region, and with over 2,400 staff globally, Perkins + Will is able to deploy the right expertise to take on a wide variety of projects – an aspect of its operations that not only enables it to fulfil the demands of the market, but one that enriches careers as well. For the employees at the company, Charlton explains, personal and professional development is worthy of serious time and investment.
"Employees can dedicate a percentage of their time to projects that are not paid for. Any employee can submit a research proposal and we select them globally every quarter – employees can have time away from paid work to focus on these.
"Initially it’s about just trying ideas, new technologies, software and new ways of looking at things. But if successful it can be an incubator for genuine and systemic changes in our industry."
In addition we have staff from various offices working in the studio at any one time, currently LA and, Boston teams are in our offices and we have people in Chicago – we move people around a lot which opens their eyes to working in different regions and cultures."
Global company – local presence
"We tendered on a project recently and the client said – ‘why should we choose you?’ To which I said: ‘Just call one of our clients, choose any client’" says Charlton. And this is no small matter to consider when working in the region; many local companies prefer to partner with businesses that have a dedicated local presence – a facet that Perkins + Will has not overlooked.
"When we first set up the office here, people always asked ‘how long have you been here? How big is your office and what projects have you done here?’ Even though we had experience elsewhere, it didn’t matter to them. They want to see the office and make sure we are real. We grew it organically. That took hard work and long hours - it has paid off now. We have the back catalogue and an office which aligns with our aspirations - those questions are now answered."
Backing up its exponential growth with a dedicated strategy to invest in people – both in and outside of the business – Perkins + Will is set to develop an already impressive presence in the Middle East. Having developed a profound understanding of its target region, the company’s reputation as a trusted partner can only grow.
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