flexiblefullpage -
billboard - default
interstitial1 - interstitial
Currently Reading

Art Gensler: Still Making a Difference for Clients Every Day

Art Gensler: Still Making a Difference for Clients Every Day

After running what is today the largest architecture firm in the world for more than four decades, M. Arthur Gensler, Jr., FAIA, FIIDA, RIBA, is content to be just another employee at the firm that bears his name. 


By By Robert Cassidy, Editorial Director | January 3, 2012
Art Gensler: Still Making a Difference for Clients Every Day
Forty-seven years after starting the firm with his wife, Drue, and Jim Follett, Art Gensler is still on the job every workday.
This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of BD+C.

After running what is today the largest architecture firm in the world for more than four decades, M. Arthur Gensler, Jr., FAIA, FIIDA, RIBA, is content to be just another employee at the firm that bears his name. “I sold my stock back to the firm, and now I consult with the leadership,” says the 76-year-old founder. “Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t. It’s advice, not instruction.”

 Click here to read Gensler: 'The One Firm Firm", as well as the Gensler profile published in the November 2011 as part of BD+C's Best AEC Firms to Work For

In fact, Gensler is at the San Francisco office every workday, when he’s not in China leading the firm’s Shanghai Tower project, or consulting with longtime client Sheldon Adelson, CEO of the Las Vegas Sands, or visiting a Gensler office somewhere in the world.

Gensler was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1935. An only child, he grew up in West Hartford, Conn., and graduated from high school in Garden City, Long Island. His mother worked for the phone company. His father, known as “Slats”—no one called him by his first name, Millard, or Arthur, for that matter—sold ceiling tiles for Armstrong Cork Co. “He was one of the best architectural sales reps ever,” Gensler says of his father. “He was all about service to the client.” Years down the road that life lesson would shape the young man’s own business philosophy.

“I wanted to be an architect for as long as I can remember,” he recalls. At Cornell (“I was lucky to be accepted”), where he was an all-Ivy honorable mention soccer star, he met Drue Cortell, a Middlebury College student, at a New Year’s party in 1954. They married in 1957, and Gensler got his BArch the next year. Upon graduating, he fulfilled his ROTC obligation as a six-month wonder in the Army Corps of Engineers.

Then followed several years of job-hopping—in New York, with Shreve, Lamb and Harmon (architects of the Empire State Building), and in Kingston, Jamaica, with Norman and Dawbarn. After two years in Jamaica, his friend, Peter Flack (of engineers Flack & Kurtz), recommended him for a job running the New York office of architect Albert Sigal, who was designing schools that also served as fallout shelters. When the school funding dried up, Gensler decided to relocate to San Francisco with Sigal. In 1962, with three sons in tow (a fourth would come along later), he and Drue headed west, settling in the bayside town of Tiburon, in Marin County.

The new job turned out to be short-lived, so Gensler moved over to Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons, where he directed the development of design standards for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. “Then, through a friend from Cornell, I had a chance to start my own firm,” he recalled. The opportunity: tenant development for the Alcoa Building, an SOM-designed office tower at 1 Maritime Plaza. In 1965, with Drue as office manager-accountant and Jim Follett as first employee, M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates Inc. was launched.

Gensler laughs when he recalls his business plan: “Feed my family!” He had to stay on part-time at his old firm to make ends meet. Then fortune struck: Cushman and Wakefield hired him to do the tenant work in the Bank of America Building. That was followed by a chance meeting with Donald Fisher, a retail entrepreneur who had just opened a blue jeans store in San Francisco and was looking for a draftsman to help him design another. “Eventually, he hired us to design that second store,” says Gensler. The firm went on to design more than 3,000 stores and most of the offices for the Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic.

As more business rolled in and the firm started adding people, Gensler turned to a professor of business at the University of San Francisco for help. “He came in twice a week to teach us how to run a business—he even gave us homework,” says Gensler. As the firm kept hitting new milestones, Gensler called on other consultants (notably McKinsey) for advice in how to run the business.

Although the firm has grown to 41 offices worldwide, certain business practices have not changed. First, there’s the Monday morning telecon, which these days starts in China and circles back an hour-and-a-half later to the Seattle office. “It lets everyone know what’s going on and keeps us consistent in our client relations,” says Gensler.

Another is cash flow. “We’ve counted the cash every Friday afternoon for more than 35 years, so we know how much we have in the bank,” he says. “All of our offices are profitable, and we’re pretty much recession-proof.” That attention to financial detail is one reason the firm has a reputation for being the best-run design firm in the country.

The third practice goes to the client service approach that a young Art Gensler learned from his salesman father. The firm has established master agreements with hundreds of companies, working in 90 countries this year. “We service whatever they need, from the pedantic to the fabulous,” he says. “Our job is to focus on their needs, to be a trusted advisor and part of their team. That’s something all of us believe in. Three or four offices may work on a project, but the firm gets the credit and all the money goes in one pot.”

Outside the office, Gensler is actively involved as a board member of the California College of Arts and as a trustee of both the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Buck Institute for Age Research. He’s on the Advisory Council to Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. He and Drue have 10 grandchildren, from a newborn to two graduate students. Two of their sons are in the firm: David, one of the three Executive Leaders, and Douglas, who directs the Boston office. (Robert is a PGA golf professional in San Diego; Kenneth is an airline pilot.) 

Gensler believes that architecture is a still a great profession for young people, despite the recent layoffs (even at his own firm). “Smart young people have a great future, but you have to think of design as ‘Big D,’ not ‘little d,” he says. “You can’t think only of the aesthetics and not also the functional operations of the project, and you have to be flexible enough to meet the short-term changes that happen every day.

“That’s why I get up and go to the office every day, because I hope I can make a difference for our clients.” BD+C
--
Click here to read Gensler: 'The One Firm Firm", as well as the Gensler profile published in the November 2011 as part of BD+C's Best AEC Firms to Work For

Related Stories

Office Buildings | Jul 19, 2022

Austin adaptive reuse project transforms warehouse site into indoor-outdoor creative office building

Fifth and Tillery, an adaptive reuse project, has revitalized a post-industrial site in East Austin, Texas.

Women in Design+Construction | Jul 18, 2022

Registration is open for BD+C's 2022 Women in Design+Construction Conference

Join your AEC industry peers in Chicago, September 26-28, 2022, for the 7th annual Women in Design+Construction Conference, hosted by the BD+C editorial team and the 35-person WIDC Advisory Board. 

Airports | Jul 18, 2022

FAA will award nearly $1 billion for airport projects

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will award nearly $1 billion to 85 airports of all sizes across the country to improve terminals.

Building Team | Jul 18, 2022

Understanding the growing design-build market

FMI’s new analysis of the design-build market forecast for the next fives years shows that this delivery method will continue to grow, despite challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mixed-Use | Jul 18, 2022

Mixed-use development outside Prague uses a material made from leftover bricks

Outside Prague, the Sugar Factory, a mixed-used residential development with public space, marks the largest project to use the sustainable material Rebetong. 

Building Team | Jul 15, 2022

ABC: Construction materials prices increased in June, up 20% from a year ago

Construction input prices increased 1.9% in June compared to the previous month, according to an Associated Builders and Contractors analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Producer Price Index data released today.

Arena | Jul 15, 2022

U. of Oregon renovation aims for ‘finest track and field facility in the world’

The renovation of the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field had the goal of creating the “finest track and field facility in the world.”

Building Team | Jul 14, 2022

LOG IN

Associated Builders and Contractors reports today that its Construction Backlog Indicator fell 0.1 months in June and stands at 8.9 months, according to an ABC member survey conducted June 21 to July 5.

Sustainable Development | Jul 14, 2022

Designing for climate change and inclusion, with CBT Architects' Kishore Varanasi and Devanshi Purohit

Climate change is having a dramatic impact on urban design, in terms of planning, materials, occupant use, location, and the long-term effect of buildings on the environment. Joining BD+C's John Caulfield to discuss this topic are two experts from the Boston-based CBT Architects: Kishore Varanasi, a Principal and director of urban design; and Devanshi Purohit, an Associate Principal.

Multifamily Housing | Jul 14, 2022

Multifamily rents rise again in June, Yardi Matrix reports

Average U.S. multifamily rents rose another $19 in June to edge over $1,700 for the first time ever, according to the latest Yardi® Matrix Multifamily Report.

boombox1 - default
boombox2 -
native1 -

More In Category




halfpage1 -

Most Popular Content

  1. 2021 Giants 400 Report
  2. Top 150 Architecture Firms for 2019
  3. 13 projects that represent the future of affordable housing
  4. Sagrada Familia completion date pushed back due to coronavirus
  5. Top 160 Architecture Firms 2021

 



Magazine Subscription
Subscribe

Get our Newsletters

Each day, our editors assemble the latest breaking industry news, hottest trends, and most relevant research, delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe

Follow BD+C: