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HDR Architecture, Inc.: Health care leader thrives by nurturing its people

HDR Architecture, Inc.: Health care leader thrives by nurturing its people

August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200803 issue of BD+C.

T o be number one in a highly competitive field like healthcare design, an architecture firm has to attract and develop top-notch talent. HDR Architecture, Inc., ranked number one in healthcare among Building Design+Construction's 2007 “Giants 300,” excels at many things, not least of which is staff development.

The Omaha-based firm, with total billings of $205 million in 2007, offers its 1,215 employees numerous opportunities for training, with the goal of creating a culture of career-long learning. That cultural trait, along with the firm's excellent reputation and diverse project portfolio, is a compelling reason for talented designers to sign on and stay with HDR.

HDR Architecture was formed in 1955. Its parent company, HDR, Inc., founded in 1917, HDR made its early reputation designing hospitals and medical facilities for high-profile clients like the Mayo Clinic, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and the Cleveland Clinic. HDR reported $103.8 million in billings for healthcare in 2006, surpassing its nearest competitor by more than $35 million.

Today, 60-70% of the firm's business is healthcare-related, says HDR Architecture president Merle Bachman, AIA. With 33 offices, including one in London and two in Canada, the firm aims to maintain leadership in healthcare while diversifying into clean manufacturing facilities, research and development labs, and higher education. Bachman, who serves as chair of the AIA Large Firm Round Table's Dean's Forum, also has set the firm's sights on expanding its overseas work to Europe, South Korea, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.

Asked to describe HDR's advantages in attracting talent, Bachman emphasizes its employee-ownership culture, career development programs, and open, inclusive leadership philosophy. HDR became employee-owned in 1997. Since then, its fortunes and stock price have risen steadily; in recent years, stock appreciation has surpassed 15% annually. Employee pride of ownership is a big contributor to success, Bachman says. This manifests itself in many ways, such as a strong employee referral program that yields top-quality hires. “Everybody wants to make sure that their referrals will work hard and contribute to our success,” he says. Last year, 236 employees were hired; voluntary turnover in 2007 was at 8.3%.


HDR's extensive career development programs include opportunities for staff to improve technical skills, business acumen, interpersonal and teamwork skills, and their knowledge of organizational practices. In 2007, over 1,200 employees participated in 245 different training programs. More than 14,400 hours of training were delivered, an average of nearly 12 hours per employee.

The firm's in-house training program, HDR University, offers a series of programs delivered around the country by firm principals. The classes seek to boost staff proficiency in technical competency, project team management, marketing and client services, leadership, and effective communications—everything from Business 101, negotiating skills, and project management, to LEED exam preparation and proposal design.

The firm's Training & Organizational Development Group is authorized to issue CEUs by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training. A registered provider in the AIA Continuing Education System, T&OD assists staff in identifying training programs that are eligible for AIA/CES learning units and advises employees on how to meet CE credit requirements for state relicensing. HDR professionals also have the option of taking on-line courses and self-study “eLearning” tutorials to improve business skills in human resources, finance, and marketing.

HDR offers tuition reimbursement for job-related college-level courses and classes that are deemed helpful toward career progression to all full-time employees. The firm compensates employees for the time required to take professional registration exams and pays their fees to attain the status of registered architect, professional engineer, or other technical accreditation.

HDR fuels its talent pipeline by offering as many as 30 college internships per year. Its employee referral program provides employees with bonuses ranging from $750 to $3,500 for referrals who are subsequently hired. In 2007, nearly 25% of new hires were a result of employee referrals.

When a new employee joins HDR, the firm strives to make the first year go smoothly with a formal mentoring program. The process begins with a month-long “onboarding” orientation program that eases the new employee's transition to HDR employment. Each participant is given an “HDR Passport,” which spells out orientation activities and milestones for the first three months of service. Participants are matched up with a sponsor, someone other than their supervisor, who serves as an advisor for the first three months. Onboarding includes a review of the firm's history and philosophy, as well as online tutorials to familiarize the participant with software, strategy, and procedures.

After onboarding, formal mentoring continues for all newcomers for up to 12 months. Each protégé is matched with an experienced mentor who provides technical assistance, guidance, and feedback, and serves as the new employee's advocate. The mentor also assists the protégé in identifying career goals and providing guidance toward them.

HDR's Design Council is responsible for studying the marketplace and positioning HDR to maximum strategic advantage. The 25-person national council and five regional councils serve as catalysts to foster a culture that promotes design excellence, staff training, and recruitment of top talent.

The Architectural Engineering Council, a network of firm leaders from many offices, fosters education, communication, and work sharing. Among this group's tasks are providing communication between technical staff and upper management and ensuring that all projects are supported by the best, most appropriate teams.

Both of these groups contribute to a culture of shared decision making that is evident in strategic planning. Every five years, the firm creates a master plan with significant input from each office. “There's quite a variety of people involved,” Bachman says. Widespread participation also helps to get everyone to support the plan, he says.

“HDR is at the forefront of a fundamental shift in the healthcare industry,” says Laura Brannen, executive director of Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, a nonprofit organization aiming to create a national movement for environmental sustainability in healthcare. “By introducing healthier and more responsible practices, HDR is helping healthcare facilities operate in ways that protect the health of patients, workers, communities, and the environment.” That's a mission any AEC professional could embrace.

—Peter Fabris, Contributing Editor

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