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

Energy-Efficient Design | May 19, 2022

Shipping containers used to build Research Triangle Park’s first community gathering space

Shipping containers were the prominent building material used to construct Boxyard RTP, the first public community and gathering place in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park (RTP). 

Mixed-Use | May 19, 2022

Seattle-area project will turn mall into residential neighborhood

A recently unveiled plan will transform a 463,000 sf mall into a mixed-use destination site in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Wash.

Codes and Standards | May 19, 2022

JLL launches non-profit aiming to mitigate climate change

Real estate and investment management firm JLL recently launched JLL Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to making a long-term impact on environmental sustainability.

Office Buildings | May 19, 2022

JLL releases its 2022 Office Fit Out Guide

JLL’s 2022 Office Fit Out Guide report provides benchmark costs to build out a range of office types across major markets in the United States and Canada.

Biophilic Design | May 18, 2022

Horticulturalists conduct research study to understand the value of biophilic design

Benholm Group, horticulturalists that have pioneered the use of plants for interiors over the past 27 years, are collaborating on a research study to understand the value of biophilic design, according to a news release.

Market Data | May 18, 2022

Architecture Billings Index moderates slightly, remains strong

For the fifteenth consecutive month architecture firms reported increasing demand for design services in April, according to a new report today from The American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Building Team | May 18, 2022

Bjarke Ingels-designed KING Toronto releases its final set of luxury penthouses

In April 2020, a penthouse at KING Toronto sold for $16 million, the highest condo sale in Toronto that year or the year after.

Building Team | May 17, 2022

MKA’s Embodied Carbon Action Plan will include reporting on carbon reductions for selected projects

Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA) recently released its SE 2050 Embodied Carbon Action Plan (ECAP) for 2022.

University Buildings | May 16, 2022

Yale’s newly renovated Schwarzman Center enriches student campus social life

Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) recently unveiled the design of their restoration of the Schwarzman Center at Yale University, which includes dining spaces, a bar, and a food shop.

K-12 Schools | May 16, 2022

Private faculty offices are becoming a thing of the past at all levels of education

Perkins & Will’s recent design projects are using the area to encourage collaboration.

boombox1 - default
boombox2 -
native1 -

More In Category


Building Team

How to apply WELL for better design outcomes

The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) cites attracting top talent, increasing productivity, and improving environmental, social or governance (ESG) performance as key outcomes of leveraging tools like their WELL Building Standard to develop healthier environments.



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: