Sheela Søgaard speaks to A’18 on the business of architecture
The CEO of Bjarke Ingels Group turned her Day 2 keynote at Radio City Music Hall into a 30-minute masterclass on the firm’s business model.
Sheela Søgaard is not an architect. She made that very clear at the beginning of her Day 2 keynote to AIA Conference on Architecture 2018 attendees, emphasizing her master’s degree in business administration. Yet the CEO of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) had plenty to say on the subject, specifically lamenting her frustration that “we spend so little time talking about the actual business of architecture.”
Because Søgaard never would’ve been hired a decade ago if the business side of running a firm was avoidable. In fact, Ingels brought her on for that very reason: “Over the years, [Ingels] had found, if he was going to run a profitable and sustainable studio, he would have to either double himself or do less architecture.”
Instead, he turned the business end over to Søgaard. And while she couldn’t help but reference the founder, creative partner, and namesake of BIG throughout her keynote, it was clear that Søgaard has been just as crucial in turning the firm into a worldwide behemoth with grand plans and a propensity to top itself.
Søgaard shared the story of being hired by Ingels; he was introduced as a “rock star” by a mutual friend. “We had chemistry,” she said, “but he couldn’t wrap his head around my salary ask.” It seemed that, despite BIG’s financial concerns, the firm wasn’t sure how this business-centric outsider would provide “tangible value.”
Fortunately, for Ingels and for BIG, Søgaard came aboard in 2008. And in reshaping how the firm did business, she learned two fundamental elements of running an architecture firm that hold true today: “One, never start a project without a commitment from a client or initial payment. And two, align delivery with payment.”
“Those might sound very basic to someone at a large firm, or someone who has been in business for a while,” she admitted, “but I’ve found that architects and designers are the nicest, most grateful people in professional services. They are so happy when the phone rings and someone asks for a pitch on a site, and of course the client always needs it tomorrow and there’s just no time to put together paperwork or wire a payment.”
The trouble with growth
As Søgaard established guidelines for BIG’s business and the firm began to grow, complications arose. Though BIG operates as an equity partnership where success is shared by all, the current partner group skews male and does not represent the firm from a gender perspective.
Søgaard noted, however, that staff under the partner level come much closer to the 50/50 gender split they’d like to see. And she admitted that the firm reassesses itself every year to discover and correct any biases that have emerged, focusing on four specific annual initiatives:
- Find and close salary gaps;
- interview at least one male and one female candidate for every position;
- ensure the talent mass represents the population of the firm;
- and offer a best-in-class parental leave policy
That said, the best policies in the world don’t mean much if you can’t keep the lights on and the paychecks from bouncing. Luckily for Søgaard and BIG, Ingels has always made it a point to pursue projects of nearly every typology, especially as the firm grew.
“His lack of inhibition meant we could be promiscuous in what kind of projects we went after,” she said, which meant groundbreaking residential projects in Copenhagen could lead to museums, skyscrapers, and anything else the firm had eyes on.
It also helped that, when the economy took a downturn in 2008, BIG decided to scale up its business development efforts rather than pull back. Instead of using the firm’s scarce creative resources to sell projects, the business development team could take charge and let their past work speak for itself, with the goal of “securing opportunities with a greater likelihood of moving beyond the concept stage.”
But at their core, BIG under Søgaard and Ingels have been masters of promotion. Firm leadership has given hundreds of lectures around the world, both to expand their network and practice their particular style of communication. They’ve hosted exhibitions and created numerous publications that highlight the firm's uniqueness. Ingels’s talents certainly help in that regard, but Søgaard emphasized that the direct commissions and repeat business the firm relies on just aren’t there without being loud and confident.
“The first step,” she said, “is to tell the world you are here.”
Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with a focus on architecture and design.