326: Lessons in Leadership and Legacy with Eugene Kohn

Today we have the privilege of hearing from one of the icons of architecture – the man who co-founded one of the largest architecture firms in the world, Kohn Pedersen Fox or KPF.

Now In its 46th year, KPF spans the world with offices in 8 countries and with projects in more than 40. KPF founder Gene Kohn has, with his two partners, built an architecture business that flourishes because when it comes to good business he practices what he preaches.

Gene just released a book chronicling the challenges and successes of building this incredibly successful firm: The World by Design: The Story of a Global Architecture Firm.

What are his secrets for success?

On this episode you’ll discover that KPF is set up and operates as the antithesis of the starchitect syndrome, the firm is not built around the personality or designs of an individual.

From the outset KPF was designed as a firm that would carry on after Gene and the other founders retired or passed away. This strategy different from many other prominent firms where the reputation of individual designers emphasized. Instead, KPF developed and lives by a culture of teamwork, rather than one of star designers.

Gene believes in discovering the most talented recent graduates, training them in all aspects of the profession and then elevating them to leadership positions. This approach has worked and KPF now has 31 principals – and a president – who rose from the ranks. Today KPF employs more than 650 people with offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Abu Dhabi and Singapore

The KPF team has been hugely successful with major buildings all over the world. Of the world’s 12 tallest buildings, 6 of them were designed by KPF – the Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen, the Lotte World Tower in Seoul, the CTF Finance Center in Guangzhou, the CITIC Tower (also known as China Zun) in Beijing and the Shanghai World Financial Center. These bona fides in global markets have positioned KPF to be named the architects for one of its newest projects One Vanderbilt, the 1401-foot-high-tower across Vanderbilt Avenue from Grand Central terminal that, with its observation deck and office floors, will make it higher than the neighboring Empire State building.

Gene turned what was initially a NY-based firm into a global powerhouse. This expansion strategy has allowed the firm to ride out major recessions in the U.S. by doing work abroad. It has also given the firm the chance to develop expertise in designing large complicated projects – first in Asia and now in the U.S. For example, the firm designed the JR Central Towers atop an active rail yard in Nagoya, Japan in the 1990’s, and then used that experience to work on Hudson Yards in NY.

Now you man be wondering – what does the story of one of the worlds largest firm’s have to do with my success as a practitioner in a small firm?

Listen closely, because the strategies that Eugene Kohn used to grow his practice are the same you can use in your firm to build a firm to suit your life.

Many architects think of business as a dirty word. Gene however has emphasized the need for architects to solve their clients’ problems on time and on budget, without compromising design integrity.

He and his partners have made a practice of developing strong connections between the architectural profession and the business world.

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