Fulton Trotter Architects
Ongoing strategic planning helps Fulton Trotter create a road map for future business development opportunities, ensuring they stay relevant and working in the markets that will sustain their business.
When was the practice established and what were its early ambitions? How has the practice evolved over time?
Fulton Collin Job was established in 1946; however, recent research by QUT suggests that the practice may have officially commenced in 1937 as Donoghue and Fulton.
The practice has continued to grow and evolve over this time and we now find ourselves in the fourth generation of directors. Name changes along the way have identified the various partners/owners/directors and in 2002 we decided to stop that practice and adopted Fulton Trotter Architects regardless of the makeup of ownership. Our practice has had 21 partners in its history with the current generation consisting of 10 as we transition from the third generation to the fourth. Today, the firm has offices in Spring Hill, Brisbane and Bondi Junction, Sydney, and has 56 employees.
Charles Fulton was seen as an early exponent of modernist architecture in Queensland, and from early on took architecture to regional areas of Queensland through the design of many hospitals for local hospital boards. The practice has always had a strong tradition of environmental design and the development of regionally specific architecture.
What is the practice philosophy?
We at Fulton Trotter Architects (FTA) have always believed in providing high quality design and service to our clients, being rewarded for our efforts and having fun while we do it. Architecture for us is a journey and it is important for us and our team (including our clients) to participate and enjoy the journey through the design, documentation and construction phases of each project. We appreciate the need to design buildings that respond to our client’s needs, are well considered and robust, are innovative yet modest, and delight the soul of those who work and live within them.
The family of FTA is a strong theme that runs through our organisation and we appreciate the development of many relationships with others within the construction industry over a long time. Our philosophy of inclusion and respect for the individual has seen a multicultural and gender-diverse group evolve. This ensures that we continue to grow and mature our desire to collaborate and facilitate the architectural experience for staff and clients alike.
Can you tell us about a key project or business initiative that provided a turning point in the life of the practice?
In 1992, during the ‘recession we had to have’, our practice found itself in the position of older partners nearing retirement and no solid succession plan or strategic plan for the future.
Around this time, we sought assistance to conduct a ‘business diagnostic’ to assist in analysing where we were and what we needed to do. The result was the introduction of three younger partners and a restructure of the practice, which was based in Brisbane and Tweed Heads at that time.
We also instigated an annual Strategic Planning Retreat to ensure we looked to the future and focused on what was necessary to secure our practice and avoid the prospect of repeating the scare of 1992.
This strategic planning regime has now occurred every year and helps us to determine the type of work we want, the type of clients we want to work with and where it should be located to ensure we don’t have all of our eggs in one basket.
As a consequence of this we have now invited our fourth generation of partners/owners/directors to secure the future of our practice as we approach our 100th year.
Tamborine Mountain College Library, Tamborine Mountain QLD. Photo: Angus Martin
What are some of the most important business management lessons you have learned?
Succession planning is essential if you wish to maintain a practice. Obviously, if you have no plans for the business to continue after you have left, you may not consider it important. However, all businesses go through cycles so it is important to plan for renewal and succession to provide longevity.
The stories from the 1992 recession have become legendary within our practice, but the lessons learned from that and the determination not to let it happen again has spurred us on to bigger and better things.
Strategic planning is also vital to ensure your business remains relevant and you are working in the markets that will sustain your business. Regular reviews of where you are and where you want to be provides a road map for future marketing and business development opportunities.
What have been the biggest challenges and successes in recent years?
The biggest challenge for us in recent years is the ability to compete on fees and still provide the high level of service we believe we should provide. Unfortunately, the profession continues to devalue itself by cutting fee levels across the board.
This can result in lower standards of care and service from the architects involved and ultimately can impact on the reputation of the profession. Lower fees become the norm rather than the exception and clients expect cheaper fees without the corresponding reduction in services.
The globalisation of the profession, emergence of multinational practices and offshore employees creates pressures on those who maintain smaller local practices with a desire to promote and develop local talent and expertise.
Of course, one could argue that you need to tailor your service to suit the fee and this is also a challenge given wage pressures, costs of technology etc. The ‘business of architecture’ is complex and needs careful management, and that is one of the key reasons our practice is a member of the ACA and supports the promotion of good business practices within the profession.
The biggest success is our ongoing evolution. Our adaptability to meet the challenges as they arise. We still have much to do but we have a solid framework and dedicated people to ensure we survive. Our skills allow us to solve complex architectural problems and we use those same skills to work through and meet the challenges that the industry and running a business throw at us.
Chapel, Clancy Catholic College, West Hoxton NSW. Photo: Eric Sierens
What are the biggest issues involved in running the practice in 2018?
Where to start? As we all know the running of a practice involves myriad different tasks and requires many skills. It is not just the ability to design, document and administer contracts but now practices need to understand and manage their responsibilities involving finance, quality management systems, human resources, industrial relations, marketing, strategic planning etc.
The ‘business of architecture’ is the biggest issue for us – managing the business and the processes involved in the provision of architectural services to ensure we are both effective and efficient is critical to the success and future of FTA.
We need to continually review and adapt business practices to ensure they meet legislative requirements and provide a sustainable business model to properly employ, reward and retain our employees and to provide them with the resources and development they need to deliver our services and exceed our clients' expectations.
How has technology impacted on how you conduct business?
It took a while for us to initially adopt technology and the take up of computers and plotters over drawing boards and print machines took some time. However. we have adapted and taken a lead role in the adoption of BIM. Director Nathan Hildebrandt has been at the forefront of BIM in Australia and has led us to a strong position in the development of software and processes to create a platform for the inevitable adoption of BIM across the industry.
Project Information Management software has also allowed us to gather and manage information much more efficiently than in the past. However, the rapid development of applications and processes requires a substantial effort and resources to maintain relevance.
The challenge of matching our long history of practice and process with current technology and the opportunities that provides is an ongoing exercise. The hands-on experience of pencils and butter paper versus computer-generated models and renders continually tests the skills of the ‘grey-hairs’ and ‘new kids’ alike.
How do you market your practice?
Our practice predominantly relies on repeat business and referrals, and this requires us to maintain a high standard of design and service. We promote ourselves as a collaborative, consultative practice eager and able to solve complex problems and provide simple solutions.
Our strategic plan encourages us to work in markets where the client retains ownership of the building assets and so we offer well-considered and economical solutions that fit their model of care and/or operation. We take an interest in their business in order to better understand what they are doing and how best to deliver that within the built environment we can provide.
We use social media to promote our work where we can and to demonstrate our expertise in our key markets. In saying that, we also respond to invitations and tenders when necessary to supplement our regular program of work.
What are the ambitions for the practice?
To surge to our 100th year in 2037 or beyond. As indicated earlier, we have identified and encouraged the fourth generation of Directors to get onboard and steer the practice into the future, steadily enhancing our design and professionalism at every step.
We believe in growth and feel that the practice does need to grow in the short term to support the current Directors. We also need to work hard on efficiencies to deliver more for less. Our regular strategic reviews and management conferences have identified that we do need to find efficiencies and obviously we look towards sound management and technology solutions to assist us with this.
The ambitions of the practice also include greater recognition, within the industry, of our work and our processes, and this includes our working environment and social fabric of the FTA family. Enjoyment of what we do is paramount and we will continue to ensure the provision of our services is appreciated and enjoyed by those who work with us.
Where do you see the business in the next five years?
By then some of the older Directors may have retired and the newbies will have consolidated their position within the practice and the industry. Our work in the Aged Care, Health and Education sectors should continue to grow, and our digital services will take on a greater role in our future work profile.
Over the past 70 odd years we have remained the same while constantly changing and adapting. No-one really knows where we will be in five years but hopefully we will continue to work with people we respect, enjoy the journey and use our skills to provide well-considered solutions to the built environment and planning demands of our clients.
It would be appropriate to include a quote from another of our new Directors, Katerina Dracopoulos, when asked to write about ‘Looking to the Future – Insight from our Future Leaders’.
We inhabit a house built on strong foundations, whose walls proudly display the passage of time, and the tales and spirit of its many inhabitants. It is built on a long and solid history of good work, great relationships and strong ethics, but the binding force that keeps it all together is this very human heartbeat. This is reflected in the body of work that we continue to produce and the on-going relationships that we continue to nurture. A large part of what makes this place tick is our desire to be involved in endeavours that are centred around caring, learning, making, inventing and delighting. Making beautiful architecture that enriches people’s lives, at the scale of both the individual and the collective.
The constantly evolving role of the architect as a thought leader is seeing the focus of our lens alter and shift, the breadth of our conversations diversify or the depths of our explorations deepen. As proud as we are of what this practice has already built, both physically and metaphorically, we look forward to constantly surprising ourselves with where our journey will take us.
Humanities and PE Centre, Faith Lutheran College, Plainland QLD Photo: Alicia Taylor
If you had one piece of advice for someone starting out, what would it be?
Think about where you are and where you want to go. Break it down into small targets and develop milestones along the way. Measure how you are progressing and adjust if you have to.
Review it regularly and modify when necessary. Respect yourself and those you work with and most of all enjoy the journey.