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Seven Decades of Leadership

March 01, 2009 |

Harwood K. Smith would be proud of the tiny architecture practice he founded 70 years ago, in Dallas. In the intervening years, HKS, Inc., has grown into the third-largest A/E firm in the U.S. (BD+C Giants 2008) and seventh-largest architecture firm in the world (BD World Architecture), with 1,250 employees in 25 offices worldwide and 2008 annual revenues of $420 million.

Smith would be proud that HKS has never missed a payment to a subcontractor or vendor; that it routinely retains 70% of its clients as repeat business; that it has won numerous “best firm” awards, including a Top 25 in the nation from the Society for Human Resource Management; and that DesignIntelligence had named HKS one of the top three architectural brands in the U.S.

The founder would also appreciate that his firm made 80% of promotions from within its own ranks; that it retained 70% of the intern architects—there were 95 in 2008—that it trained; and that HKS's voluntary turnover rate, 14%, was below the 16.1% turnover rate of firms in the AIA Large Firm Roundtable.

Today's HKS may be a giant among design firms, but it continues to embrace the homespun values of its founder, notably an emphasis on continuing education. In 2008, HKS devoted $4 million, or more than $3,000 per employee, to learning programs.

Last year, HKS.edu, the firm's exclusive, companywide CE program, sponsored 540 classes, with employees logging 21,000 hours to upgrade their skills and knowledge. All employees—not just designers—must complete 20 hours of approved classes each year. Last year saw a 35% increase over 2007 in the number of professional employees gaining licensure.

HKS is also a leader in the use of technology. Last year, 400 of its professionals were trained in Autodesk Revit building information modeling. At the suggestion of employee Nick Lu, the firm has been using the V-Ray animation program to bring its client presentations to life. And it developed its own software, ARCHengine, for 3D visualization and design of megaprojects like the $1 billion Dallas Cowboys stadium.

HKS employees also benefit from the firm's size and reach. After the firm opened an office in Chennai, India, two employees native to India were able to transfer there. An Iraqi native was able to relocate to Abu Dhabi when HKS opened an office there in 2008. An employee in Richmond, Va., was able to join the Salt Lake City office when her husband took up his medical residency there.

On the green front, HKS did 35 million sf of LEED projects in 2008, about one-fifth of the firm's work. The firm has taken up the AIA's 2030 Challenge to address climate change, and recently appointed Kirk Teske as chief sustainability officer to lead the charge. HKS earned LEED-CI Silver certification for its Detroit office and has mandated that standard for all future offices. Through its “LEED Fellowship” study program, 283 professional staff members have achieved LEED AP status.

The firm also takes care of the communities it serves. Every HKS professional is required to devote 20 billable hours a year pro bono to community projects. Ronald McDonald Houses in Dallas and Phoenix have benefited from HKS employees' expertise in rehab projects. Staff from the Richmond, Va., office renovated a neighborhood health center in that city to ADA and HIPAA standards and added new exam rooms and nursing stations. U.S. service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan have received goodwill packages—including memorabilia from HKS clients the NFL Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts—via the employee-run “Operation HKS Cares.”

Despite 300% profit growth since 2002 and a backlog of nearly $20 billion in projects, CEO Ralph Hawkins, FAIA, has called upon his management team to address the economic downturn.

Among the strategies under consideration for a five-year timeframe: retooling and refocusing to offer master planning, small project designs and renovations, sustainability consulting, and interior design solutions (including LEED-CI certifications for existing buildings). For corporations that are downsizing, it will offer planning for facilities consolidation and real estate portfolio realignment. In its healthcare practice, which accounts for more than half its fees, HKS is looking to provide clinical solutions and research services. —Robert Cassidy, Editor-in-Chief


More HKS Benefits Programs

50% match for employee 401(k) plans (up to 6% of employee compensation)
Up to $175 for single employees ($350 for those with families) for completing an online health assessment, online health coaching, and meeting with a health coach via telephone, all hosted by United Healthcare
Three-part health education program (diet, stress, exercise) presented by Dallas's Cooper Clinic
$5 “gourmet lunch” in the Dallas office (a suggestion from an employee)
Four-hour paid leave for earning a “Nice Job” customer service award
100-person state-of-the-art Learning Center in Dallas office
Quarterly lunches for employees to pair up with others with whom they don't usually work
Double bonuses—summer and year-end—to interns
Hands-on, “project-based” mentoring program
CE course in business etiquette (email, office and dining propriety) by manners maven Joy Weaver
Annual employee art show
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