Dietz & Co. Marks a Milestone with Some Imaginative InitiativesKerry Dietz says talk about what to do for the 30th anniversary of the architectural firm that bears her name started last fall, four or five months before the actual anniversary date.
There were discussions about some sort of party, she told BusinessWest, meaning one of those affairs with a deep invitation list including a wide range of clients, elected officials, and area business and economic-development leaders.
But those talks never got very far.
“You can have a party and get a caterer, and everyone can sit around and drink some chardonnay and eat some cheese; that would be cool,” she told BusinessWest. “And I love seeing all those people we’ve worked with over the past 30 years — it’s actually a lot of fun. But this just seems like a different place and time, and those kinds of parties…”
She never actually finished that sentence, but she didn’t have to. She’d already conveyed the message that the employees of Dietz & Co. Architects Inc. had decided to do something much more meaningful — and lasting — to mark a milestone that eludes many in this business, where one’s fortunes are tied inexorably to the peaks and valleys of the economy, and especially the latter.
Actually, they decided to do several things — starting with some much-needed work on the home of an 85-year-old resident on King Street in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood. As part of Revitalize Community Development Corp.’s annual Green-N-Fit Neighborhood Rebuild late last month, Dietz employees did some painting, cleaned out the yard, and repaired the decking on his porch, among other projects.
In June, employees will host a cookout for residents of the Soldiers Home in Holyoke and make a $5,000 donation for medical equipment. And later this year, they’ll fund $25,000 worth of needs identified by Springfield public-school teachers through the education-crowdfunding website donorschoose.org. That’s the same initiative to which comedian Stephen Colbert, in partnership with Share Fair Nation and Scansource, recently pledged $800,000 to fund every request made by South Carolina public-school teachers.
“We want to honor initiative … we’re about ideas; that’s what we do here,” said Dietz as she encouraged teachers to log on and submit a project. “We try and be a step ahead, and so we want teachers to be thinking about what kids need to know and what they need to do in order to learn.”
Finding the time to do all this will be a way of saying ‘thank you’ to the community, said Dietz, but it will also be an extreme challenge.
That’s because her team is quite busy right now as the company continues to recover and build its portfolio in the wake of the latest of many economic downturns Dietz has weathered over the past three decades.
“The recession hit us very hard, and it took a couple of years to pull out of that,” she told BusinessWest. “We had our best year ever last year, as in ever, ever, ever — off the charts ever — and I think this year looks to be similar based on our projections.”
Indeed, the list of ongoing and recently completed projects includes everything from the UMass Center in Springfield, which opened last fall, to the new, 21,500-square-foot senior center now under construction in Westfield and slated to open in September; from upgrades to several buildings on the campus of Worcester State University to the zero-net-energy affordable senior housing project in Williamstown known as Highland Woods; from a comprehensive building assessment of the historic Chicopee City Hall and its annex and planned restoration of its second floor to renovation of the Juniper Elementary School on the Westfield State University campus into the new home of the school’s Fine & Performing Arts Program.
As she discussed these and other projects, Dietz said the company has built a solid reputation over the past 30 years for work in a number of realms, in both the public and private sectors, and for meeting client needs — for ‘green’ design elements, more efficient workspaces, and everything in between.
Given its age and the depth of its portfolio, Dietz summoned the term ‘venerable’ to describe what the firm, now the largest in the region, has become, and it’s an adjective she and her staff wear proudly.
“We’re really busy, and I think part of the reason for that is we’ve been around for a long time, and all that experience comes into play,” she said. “People value that.”
For this issue and its focus on architecture, BusinessWest looks at how Dietz & Co. has drafted a blueprint for business success, as well as a working schematic for how to give back to the community.
As she talked about her 30 years as a business owner and nearly four decades as an architect, Dietz said those in this field earn a good deal of their money — and hang most of those pictures of their work that dominate their lobbies and conference rooms — when times are good.
But it is the ability to slog through those times when things are far from good that often defines one’s career — and determines its ultimate path.To get her point across, she ventured back to the weeks and months just after 9/11. This was neither the longest nor deepest of the downturns she’s weathered — the one in the early and mid-’90s wins that first honor, and the Great Recession earns the latter — but it was perhaps the most frightening and career-threatening.
“I have never seen things dry up as quickly as they dried up,” she recalled. “Things just disappeared. People got scared; I’ve never seen fear like that.
“I remember meeting with my banker at one point,” she went on, “and basically saying, ‘here are the keys [to the business] — do you want them?’ Fortunately, he didn’t take me up on my bluff.”
Indeed, the company managed to weather that terrible storm and add several more pictures to the conference-room walls. The key to doing so was that aforementioned diversity as well as the diligence and sheer talent of the staff, she said, noting that the firm now boasts 20 employees and 10 architects.
That kind of success might have been difficult for Dietz to envision when she first decided to go into business for herself.
She started down that path after earning a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Michigan. Soon after graduating in 1977, she joined Architects Inc. in Northampton (see related story, page 31) and later became part of the team at Studio One in Springfield.
In addition to her architectural talents, though, she possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, and decided in late 1984 that it was time to put her own name on the letterhead and over the door.
“It seemed like the next logical thing to do,” she said with a touch of understatement in her voice. “It sounds like a rational decision, but it wasn’t, necessarily, nor was it a well-thought-out decision. I didn’t go read a book to see how you start a business, let alone an architecture business. I learned by doing.”
Fortunately, this was a time when things were good. The real-estate boom of the ’80s had just begun, and there was considerable work to be had.
“We rode the historic-tax-credit boom that ended when Reagan’s tax plans made it less lucrative,” she explained, adding that the firm enjoyed solid growth through the end of the decade, when the real-estate boom went bust and the well of projects dried up, offering a challenging, but nonetheless valuable, learning experience.
“I had no concept that things like that could happen,” she said of what turned out to be a lengthy downturn. “What did I know? We got through it somehow.”
There have been several ups and downs since as the company has amassed a huge portfolio of projects in sectors ranging from public housing to education to healthcare, said Dietz, adding that one thing she’s been able to learn by doing is how to read the economic tea leaves, try to anticipate the next downturn, and prepare for it to the extent possible.
“This is a very volatile business, and one of the things you have to have are some planning tools and some prediction tools in place, which I’ve developed over the years that allow me to look out a year and say, ‘oh, look, there’s no work in six months, what am I going to do?’” she explained. “So, every month, I’m doing an analysis of the future on both an accrual and a cash basis.”Looking ahead, she sees reason to be concerned about global instabilities and other factors such as national fiscal policies, but she believes the current period of modest growth and solid consumer and business confidence will continue for the foreseeable future.
Growth — by Design
This forecast is reflected, to a large degree, in the number of proposals for new projects being drafted by Ashley Soloman, the firm’s marketing coordinator, who puts the number at several a week on average.
It is also reflected in the current and recent projects list, which reveals not only the firm’s diversity and work across both the private and public sectors (especially the latter), but also current trends in building design and construction.
Indeed, several projects on that list involve new construction or renovation aimed at making the structures in question energy-efficient — or much more so.
One such project involves renovation of 209 units of elderly housing in the Boston suburb of Brighton that Dietz called “an energy monstrosity.”
“We’re looking at ways we can tighten this building up — strategies we can devise for decreasing energy use,” she explained. “Its claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that it’s one of the largest consumers of energy in MassHousing’s portfolio, on a cost-per-unit basis, and we’re hoping to reduce their status.”
Meanwhile, already under construction is a 40-unit, net-zero-energy affordable-housing project in Easthampton called Parsons Village, she went on, and the foundations were just poured for that aforementioned net-zero-energy elderly-housing project in Williamstown.
“Both of these are really exciting projects,” she told BusinessWest, because we sort of pushed the envelope, if you will, on envelope design, insulation levels, and looking at really sealing the buildings using good building-science technology.” Meanwhile, Chicopee City Hall is another intriguing project, said Dietz, adding that there will be a historic-renovation study to examine not only the exterior of the building, built in 1871, but also the feasibility of converting the long-unused meeting space on the top floor into a new chamber for the Board of Aldermen.
That study will also involve the historic stained-glass window in that room, which has been damaged amid deterioration of the ceiling.
Other work in the portfolio includes a series of projects at Worcester State University, said Dietz, adding that many of the buildings on the campus are now 30 or 40 years old and in need of maintenance and renovations aimed at greater energy-efficiency.
And while the company is being imaginative and cutting-edge in the field, it is doing the same, she believes, with its work within the community.
The company has had a long track record for giving back, said Dietz, and years ago, it decided to establish a donor-advised fund with the Community Foundation to help ensure that it could continue to be active, even during those downturns.
“We already had a fairly robust program for charitable giving,” she noted, “but this allows us to be even more … interesting and have a little more money to play with.”The company was to mark its 30th year — and celebrate its best year ever — by pumping $30,000 back into the community, she went on, adding that this number has since risen to $35,000. And the entire staff has provided input into how best to apportion those funds.
The projects eventually chosen reflect the company’s values, and in each case they also involve another of its strengths — teamwork, said Tina Gloster, the firm’s operations manager, noting that 25 employees and family members were involved on King Street, a large crew will be needed for the picnic at the Soldiers Home, and many individuals will be involved in deciding which school projects to support if requests exceed the available funds.
And they anticipate that there will be many to choose from.
The site donorschoose.org enables teachers in a given community to post a specific request, said Gloster, meaning materials or an activity that they cannot afford. Individuals and groups can go on the site and choose initiatives they want to support.
“Between August 1 and September 25, we’re making a big push to get Springfield public-school teachers to log onto this site and put their projects there,” she added. “And then we’re going to pick projects to fund in their entirety.”
There will likely be more projects than can be funded with $25,000, she went on, adding the company is encouraging other businesses and the community at large to get involved with the initiative, either in Springfield or other area communities.
“Rather than send us a plant and say, ‘happy 30th,’ we want people to fund a project,” said Dietz. “That’s a much more interesting way to help us celebrate.”
The actual 30th anniversary for Dietz & Co. came in February. As mentioned earlier, there was no party for clients, politicians, and friends.
More to the point, there wasn’t even anything small in-house for employees.
“We just couldn’t get our act together,” said Dietz with a laugh, adding that, roughly translated, this means everyone was simply too busy.
As in too busy with all those projects in the portfolio, and too busy with those initiatives within the community and the planning involved in making them happen. These are the things the company has managed to make time for, said Dietz, adding that the sum of these various parts constitutes a great way to mark a milestone and celebrate being “venerable.”
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]