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Best Firms, FreemanWhite: Home Schooled the 'FreemanWhite Way'

By arming its employees with the best education and training possible, Charlotte, N.C.-based FreemanWhite has grown from a hometown studio into one of the largest healthcare design firms in the U.S.

May 01, 2006 |

If Charles C. Hook were alive today, he'd be beaming like a proud parent about what has become of the tiny North Carolina architecture practice he founded 114 years ago.

FreemanWhite (Hook was dropped from the firm's name in 1967), the nation's 10th oldest architecture firm, has grown from a small, regional studio with mostly residential and public buildings work to its name into the 35th largest architecture/engineering firm in the nation, with nearly $34 million in annual billings and offices in Charlotte, N.C. (headquarters), Raleigh, N.C., Minneapolis, and Trivandrum, India, according to Building Design & Construction's 2005 Giants 300 report.

The 200-person company has carved out its niche in the healthcare and senior living sectors, offering services in all facets of design: architecture, interior design, engineering, facilities planning, and operations and business consulting. Its portfolio includes 43 of the 50 largest hospitals in North Carolina and more than 300 hospitals and 60 senior living communities nationwide.

FreemanWhite's growth spurt began in 1992 when Alan Baldwin, FAIA, president and CEO, and Frank Brooks, AIA, ACHA, chairman, joined the firm's leadership team. At the time, the company employed just 38 people and netted $3.5 million in billings.

"We were just a little North Carolina firm that operated locally," says Baldwin. He and Brooks saw potential in the firm and set forth an aggressive plan to expand its healthcare design practice beyond its hometown roots, and beyond traditional architecture and engineering services.

Within six years, the company acquired a 30-person firm in Raleigh, N.C., and began chasing work far from home, winning projects in Anchorage, Alaska; Albany, N.Y.; and Los Angeles.

In the mid-'90s, Mark Furgeson, AIA, ACHA, managing principal, and Jon Huddy, AIA, managing principal, joined the leadership team and helped launch a consulting services division that provided long-term strategic consulting for healthcare environments—everything from market analysis to equipment planning to ambulatory care—which quickly blossomed into a multi-million-dollar practice (it currently makes up nearly one-quarter of the firm's total revenue).

This management team was methodical in their growth strategy for the firm. "It wasn't about growth just for growth's sake," says Baldwin. "We wanted to grow in a smart way." For Baldwin, that meant developing new staff members in the major facets of the business and in firm's culture.

"There were a lot of new people coming into the organization at that time," he says. "We wanted to make sure they did things the 'FreemanWhite Way.'"

In early 1998, the firm launched the FreemanWhite Academy, offering 15 courses geared toward developing its project managers in everything from bidding and contract negotiation to project administration and financial management.

Within a year, the program was expanded to nearly 100 courses to meet the needs of project architects, designers, and others within the company. Everyone from interior architects to MEP engineers to office administration was required to take three or four mandatory prerequisite courses and a specific number of electives that cover issues related to both work and personal life (e.g., financial management and work-life balance).

"We realized that our administration staff has a great deal to do with the projects," so they created courses like Architecture 101, Engineering Basics, and History of Architecture to give them more background in the field, says Jill Onley, FreemanWhite's director of human resources, who helped develop the academy.

Today, the FreemanWhite Academy offers 120 courses to meet the needs of 43 staff positions within the company. Each course comes with its own syllabus, study materials, and qualified instructor (in most cases a FreemanWhite employee). Employees sign up for classes on the firm's intranet site, which lists course schedules and individual employee transcripts showing which required classes have been completed.

The firm offers classes during lunch breaks, at night, and even during the weekends. AEC professionals from outside the firm may also participate.

Employees earn learning units that apply toward various industry accreditations, such as AIA, CSI, and LEED AP. Classroom performance is linked directly with the company's performance evaluation program. Employee feedback on classes is mandatory: "We won't process their learning units until they provide feedback," says Baldwin.

Each year, the company adds courses that relate to five firm-wide goals it sets for the year. Goals for 2006 include "unsurpassed quality," "increased visibility," and the "FreemanWhite experience," which Baldwin sums up with this maxim: "It's not just doing a great job, but making it a fun experience." Training on how to conduct productive, enjoyable meetings and how better to communicate with clients is at the heart of this track.

The academy is even more structured for interns. During their three-year stint, interns are required to put in at least 5,600 hours of education time focused on 16 training categories. Some, such as schematic design and code research, involve classroom training. Others, like construction observation, site and environmental analysis, and community service, are administered in the field. The company offers 117 courses for interns, in addition to 15 customized courses designed around the 16 training categories. About half the courses are geared toward preparing students for the NCARB national licensing exams.

The company invests a pretty penny to keep the academy fresh and relevant.

Each year, 3.5–4% of the company's gross income is put back into the program. That equated to $960,000 in 2005, or about $4,800/employee. Baldwin happily offers up a wealth of statistics to demonstrate the program's immediate benefits:

  • Since the academy was launched, errors and omissions on projects dropped from more than 2% to less than 1% (industry average: 3–4%).

  • Projects are being completed within 3–4% of the targeted budget (down from 8–10%).

  • 80% of the firm's work is repeat business.

  • Staff volunteer turnover has been slashed nearly in half, from 14% in 1998 to less than 8% today.

  • More than three-fourths of the firm's architectural interns pass the national licensing exam on the first try, besting the industry average.

"Thanks to the academy, our employees are more technically capable," says Baldwin.

FreemanWhite's emphasis on education flows outward as well. The firm encourages all employees to write articles for national trade magazines related to the firm's projects, technology, or expertise—and it rewards its staff with a $1,000 check for each published article. Before instituting the program, "we had just five published articles dating back to 1892," says Baldwin. Now the firm averages 12–15 published articles a year.

"This not only helps build the firm's reputation, it also helps build résumés for our people," says Dianne Howell, director of corporate communications, who created FreemanWhite's Expert Exposure Program in 2001. "In several instances, published articles were cited in RFPs, and one was even directly related to us winning a commission."

So, what's in the future for FreemanWhite?

By the end of the year, the company will open a state-of-the-art, 50,000-sf headquarters building in Charlotte, with a 960-sf training center for the academy, a one-mile running track, and an 800-sf fitness center with showers and locker rooms.

The fitness center will come complete with a structured exercise program that may also lower insurance rates for both the individual and the company. Onley says she's working with the company's health insurance provider to develop a fitness program that might lower premiums 1–5%.

"Reduced rates are great, but the benefits go well beyond that," says Baldwin. "With just one less sick day per employee, we'll reap our investment ten-fold in billable hours."

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