A Day in the Life of Tom J., President of an architecture firm.
What I Do
Now that I have started my own firm, I do everything. I run a business, which happens to be architecture—designing hotels and resorts, condominiums, and commercial/retail properties.
As a former partner in a large architecture firm, I was a consultant. Our projects ranged from U.S. $10 million to U.S. $350 million—mostly very large commercial development projects for clients like Marriott.
My entire architecture career primarily has been as a designer and consultant, which requires a lot of up-front analysis before you actually start to design anything. Most architects don’t like to crunch the numbers, but in reality, you must do zoning studies and “best use” studies for land or locations and determine the feasibility. Then, you can help a client with decisions about where to locate retail, living, and commercial space in a “mixed-use” real estate environment.
What I Enjoy Most
I like both the creative and the analytical/strategic side of the business—that up-front analysis. After a project is complete and in use, the reward is when you see people using the building and enjoying it. When you see it working and the community responds to it well, you know it was a success. And I like the analytical side that got you there—understanding the best use of a property and the business decision behind why you built something in the first place.
What I Enjoy Least
You can’t be successful at this immediately. Most substantial architecture projects take at least a year to design and two or three years to build. To know how to build and provide services to customers, you have to have at least two or three complete projects behind you. Into my second decade in this profession, I chose to pursue another degree just to remain in this profession and be better at my job. Anybody who gets into this career has to realize that you have to be in it for the long haul—and make a very deep commitment to the profession as I have.
You also need patience and determination. Most potential projects never make it past feasibility and planning because they aren’t determined to be viable, because you don’t get the business, or because your client can’t secure the funding to make the idea a reality.
Why I Chose This Career
I always wanted to be an architect, even as a kid. I grew up in Tokyo, and our home was right across from the new Olympic stadium that had been built for the 1964 Olympics. That made a huge impression on me.
Regarding timing, it was much later that I recognized some of my business skills (both natural talents and underdeveloped skills) as my career progressed. This led to my decision to pursue an MBA through an executive (weekend) program at the point when I was already 15 years into my career. Ironically, I never saw myself as an entrepreneur until I was enrolled in the MBA program. Until then, I had been in the role of a consultant as a partner in a large firm. By the time I graduated with the executive MBA, I knew I would start my firm, which I had done immediately.
Desirable Traits to Be Successful in This Career
I found as my career progressed that MBA skills were what I needed—outside the creative side of architecture/design, there are business decisions to be made. For example, you are doing marketing segmentation when you to try focus on the types of customers you want to go after. You need financial skills when you consider probability and feasibility, create valuations of real estate projects, and determine how to put together deals to secure financing and make complex financial transactions work. For example, you might pull together swaps, options, or bond funding to make a project financially viable for a client. In this respect, finance is similar to architecture—one has to think very creatively but analytically at the same time.
You have to be patient with the client—listen. In business school, we learn to get at exactly what the customer wants. Sometimes even your client doesn’t know what he wants, so you have to help him get there before you can design anything.
Words of Advice If You Are Considering This Career Path
Perhaps because so much of architecture involves the artist and his craft, it’s easy to overlook or underestimate the necessity for operating with a business mind. For example, marketing is a very expensive venture in architecture; you are going after projects that often don’t pan out. (In fact, statistically, only 1 in 10 proposed projects ever gets built.) Consequently, you need always to consider how to spend your time most profitably. I always spend some time estimating the probability of projects is moving forward; I have found that one of the most important factors is the financial feasibility of a project from a client’s (developer’s) point of view. I am more likely now to start by putting on the client’s hat and asking, “Can I go through with this?”
What I Did Before This (Including Pre-MBA and Post-MBA Jobs)
As a history graduate, I landed a job working for an architecture/interior design firm as an apprentice before going to architecture school. My first position as an architect was in San Francisco, designing hotels in China. I later moved to Hawaii and went to a firm where I spent 12 years, ending as partner and director of marketing. We had 70 to 80 architects—it was the largest firm in Hawaii.
I went out on my own near the tail end of the MBA program, just this past year.
Educational Background (Undergraduate, MBA, Other)
- MBA, Kellogg-Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Executive MBA program, 2012
- Master of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania, 2006
- Bachelor of Arts, Long Island Business Institute, modern European history, 2001
In MBA Programs, I’d Suggest You Look For…
Look for a school of high quality in a location that makes sense. A lot of my clients and prospects have been in Asia, so when looking for a weekend or part-time program that would enable me to continue working, an Asia-based program made sense.
I wanted a program with a very strong marketing expertise. What I needed and gained with an MBA was the ability to analyze things, look at the market, and develop services to fit the market needs. The unique program I attended combined the academic strengths of two schools and was just right for me.
Look at the timing within your career and then find a program that suits. For me, I always wanted to stay close to the true architecture career path and chose to get the MBA later, simply to enhance my career success. Other alternative career paths for someone with an architecture background and an MBA earlier in their career would be to switch to real estate development (usually in the finance department), within a large corporate umbrella where there are multiple locations—or even asset management. For these paths, I would probably go to a full-time MBA program with a strong finance curriculum, after spending enough time in architecture (perhaps after completing one or two projects over three to six years).