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Blueprinting a Succession Plan

new leadership team at Dietz & Co.

From left, the new leadership team at Dietz & Co.: Kevin Riordan, Tina Gloster, Jason Newman, and Lee Morrissette.

As he talked about the transition in ownership, and leadership, taking place at Springfield-based Dietz & Co. Architects, Jason Newman used the phrase ‘ease-in, ease-out mentality’ to describe the process.

By that he meant that Kerry Dietz, founder of the firm and its principal, has been easing out of the many responsibilities involved with leading this company of nearly 30 employees and its many projects, while a team of four leaders — architects (and principals) Jason Newman, Lee Morrissette, and Kevin Riordan, and CFO Tina Gloster — have been easing into them.

That’s a simple yet efficient way of describing what’s been happening at the Dietz firm for roughly the past two years now as it transitions from a single owner to one with an employee stock-ownership plan, or ESOP, which is a form of employee benefit plan, similar in many ways to a profit-sharing plan.

“Kerry didn’t want to just hand us the keys and walk away, and we didn’t want her to do that either,” said Newman, who studied under her while earning his degree in architecture at UMass Amherst. “We’ve been in our new roles and taking on new responsibilities as principals in the firm, but we also have the comfort, and benefit, of Kerry being here on a limited basis to help guide us and mentor us and still bring all the positive energy she brings to the office, which will sorely be missed when she finally steps away.”

And with Dietz, who is now working just a day or two a week, set to fully retire at the end of this year, the transition process is now pretty much complete, said Newman, adding quickly that those involved are still easing in or out in many respects, but settling into their new roles.

For Dietz, that means the next stage of her life after a more than 40-year career in architecture that saw her make her mark not only in her field, but in the city of Springfield, where she moved her firm into the renovated Union Station; and in the community, where she has been active and philanthropic, and made sure her company and its employees were as well. For this strong combination of business success and involvement in the community, Dietz became a member of BusinessWest’s inaugural Women of Impact class in 2017.

For those succeeding her in leadership positions, it’s a time to write the next chapter for a company that has changed the landscape in the region, literally, designing buildings across many different sectors, from housing to education; office to gaming (it designed many of the spaces at MGM Springfield).

 

Transparent Approach

As they start writing those new chapters, those we spoke with said the ESOP model, one in which ownership of the firm is essentially shared by all employees, will work well at Dietz, and for a number of reasons.

“It’s a very interesting way to look at a business, especially in the design industry, where so much of what we do is teamwork,” said Newman, adding that the ESOP model dovetails nicely with the company’s operating structure in ways that were not really anticipated, or fully understood, when the concept was first proposed in late 2020.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee. If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Another factor is the high level of transparency that has defined Kerry Dietz’s management style and now characterizes the company, said Morrissette, an experienced architect who came to Dietz in 2019 after working at firms in the Boston area.

“One of the things that is most remarkable to me, coming from other firms in the Boston area and elsewhere before that, is the level of business transparency that the Dietz company has offered from the very first meeting I came into,” he explained. “The quarterly performance of the company and our business initiatives are clear to all the employees, and we have an open-book policy when it comes to everything but salaries, and that’s very uncommon in our industry.

“There has been a very consistent approach to sharing the business of architecture with the entire staff,” he went on. “It’s an education for everyone; it was for me when I first came here — I learned a lot about the business of architecture, and it’s made it a lot easier to do this transition, because we were included the whole time so we could take on more and more understanding and more and more responsibility.”

Riordan, who has been with Dietz for nearly 20 years, agreed.

“Kerry was one person running the firm, and that was a huge responsibility, with a lot of tasks and pieces attached to that,” he said. “It’s been really great to see everyone step into those roles in their own way and actually make a better process for running the firm, because there’s no one person trying to manage it all, plus run projects. There are four of us that are actually taking on the tasks and developing our own initiatives for how we make those tasks better.”

Still, there has been a sharp learning curve with this transition, said Newman, adding that it’s still ongoing.

“It’s definitely a completely different way to run a business,” he said. “Many of the aspects of being an ESOP are quite positive; we have a lot more opportunities for our employees to engage and reap the benefits of being a company owner, from the financial side as well as the cultural side. It’s not one person at the top who has full authority on decision making and the strategic direction of the company.”

Elaborating, he said that, in addition to the four in the four leadership positions, there is also a board of directors charged, in essence, with making sure the company is being run fairly and that all voices are heard.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee,” Newman went on. “If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

With the transition in leadership, the three principals have taken on new responsibilities. Morrissette said he will be working on marketing, alongside Marketing Coordinator Ashley Solomon, while also directing the many housing projects the firm takes on, as well as municipal projects. Meanwhile, Newman said he will be working closely with Gloster and focusing on the business side of the company — “talking with our lawyers, corporate governance, contracts, insurance, all this stuff you love to do as an architect.”

Riordan, meanwhile, said he will be focused on “quality control” and developing systems to enable the firm to operate better and more efficiently, adding that all three principals will be involved in several aspects of management, including the recruitment and hiring of talent and building the book of business.

 

Branching Out

Moving forward, those we spoke with expect some changes at Dietz. One of them involves a broadening of the firm’s reach and getting closer to clients — quite literally, said Morrissette, adding that, with the firm doing consistently larger amounts of work in the Boston area, it will open an office in that city in the near future.

With the pandemic and the manner in which it allowed firms to connect with and work for clients remotely, he explained, the firm has taken on more projects outside the 413 and in areas like Boston, a trend that will continue into the future.

“We’re reaching out, geographically, more than we have in the past, and that’s very exciting,” he said. “This [remote] interaction is something we’re getting very comfortable and familiar with, and it has allowed us to reach much farther than we have before … that’s a big step forward, and it’s something we definitely gained from the pandemic.”

What won’t change, though, is the high level of commitment to the community, and giving back, that Kerry Dietz made part of its fabric of doing business.

“We have a long and strong history in affordable housing and in serving the organizations and the nonprofits that serve our communities,” Newman said. “And our passion to continue to fill that role has not wavered in the slightest. When Kerry was running the company herself, she had a very generous charitable-giving strategy, which we have looked at, revisited, and ramped up.

“We pride ourselves on being an architecture firm that supports the people who support us,” he went on. “And that won’t change.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2018

Owner, Principal, Dietz and Company Architects

She’s Long Had Designs on Building a Stronger Community

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

The course was titled “Architects as Leaders.”

Kerry Dietz taught it at UMass Amherst, her alma mater, several years ago. This was a one-off of sorts, she told BusinessWest, adding that there was a critical mass of students interested in this material — which amounted to insight and instruction not on how to design structures, but rather on how architects could and should become leaders within their communities — and circumstances haven’t permitted her to teach it again.

But while that class is no longer in the catalog, ‘architect as leader’ has been a course of action for Dietz — and those who have come to work for her over the past 30 years or so. It’s a phrase that defines her career more than any building or office interior she’s designed, and it explains, better than any other three-word phrase we can find, why she is a Woman of Impact.

Examples of this mindset abound — from her time spent on the Springfield Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals to her company’s involvement with several area nonprofits, from Revitalize CDC to Habitat for Humanity, to her decision to locate her growing company in Union Station at a time when that massive project was fairly desperate to land a high-profile tenant.

And then, there was the company’s 30th birthday party.

Rather than celebrate with a cake or maybe lunch on the town, the employees at Dietz & Company, as a group, decided to use that occasion to give back within the community, in a big way.

She took that number 30, added three more zeroes, and put a dollar sign at the front. And then, she and her team set about finding appropriate ways to bestow that amount on members of the community.

“She has also been an inspiration to me personally in promoting and supporting social-issue programs that support food and housing for the homeless, veterans’ housing, and health and scholarship funding for low-income students and families.”

Throughout the course of the year, a cookout was hosted by Dietz & Company staff for veterans of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, and a monetary donation was made to assist with the home’s Veteran’s History video project. Also, a monetary donation was made and staff members volunteered their time to help make repairs to the home of a low-income Springfield resident as part of Revitalize CDC’s Green-n-Fit Neighborhood Rebuild. And $25,000 worth of materials and projects were funded for Springfield teachers through a competition in which initiative and impact were honored for educators going the extra mile to help and encourage the success of their students.

It was Dietz’s concept, but it was a company-wide effort.

“I basically said, ‘here’s my idea — the broad stroke,’” she recalled. “And people ran with it. As a company, we figured out who we wanted to support, and they (team members) did all the organizing. All you have to do sometimes is say, ‘let’s do it.’”

But Dietz has never waited for round-number anniversaries to become active and get herself — and her firm — involved. And in doing so, she has become not only an employer, but an inspirational leader, role model to those in this profession, and mentor.

“Kerry has committed her life to promoting women in the practice of architecture by promoting a fair work environment in her firm and as a leader in the Massachusetts architectural and business community,” said Kevin Riordon, an architect at Dietz. “She has also been an inspiration to me personally in promoting and supporting social-issue programs that support food and housing for the homeless, veterans’ housing, and health and scholarship funding for low-income students and families.”

While doing all that work within the community, Dietz has established herself within the field of architecture, one long dominated by men. She owns one of the largest firms in the region, and has carved out several strong niches, especially in affordable housing and education.

It is this combination of excellence in her field and career-long designs on finding ways to strengthen the community that has placed her in the inaugural class of Women of Impact.

From the Ground Up

Deitz traced the ‘architects as leaders’ concept — as a college course but also the M.O. for her career — to a summit she attended in the early ’80s that was hosted by the American Institute of Architects.

It was memorable because it was not what she was expecting.

“It wasn’t about how to be a good supervisor or how to do marketing and make more money — it wasn’t that kind of thing,” she recalled. “Instead, it was about our place in the political world and within the community — what do you have to offer?”

Kerry Dietz, right, presents a donation to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke as part of her company’s 30th anniversary celebration. Several staff members are in the background.

Kerry Dietz, right, presents a donation to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke as part of her company’s 30th anniversary celebration. Several staff members are in the background.

And because of their training and the collaborative nature of their work, architects have quite a bit to offer, whether they fully understand that or not, she went on.

“If lawyers think they can run the world, and captains of industry think they can run the world, well … how about architects?” she asked rhetorically. “We receive an incredible amount of training on how to take a whole bunch of dissimilar thoughts and ideas and listen to a whole group of people, and pull it all together and create a building. And even before that, a vision of a building; it’s all really about listening to people and synthesizing all that.

“These are core skills the world needs,” she went on, adding that a commitment to putting these skills to work has guided her firm, not only in its design efforts, but within the community as well. And it’s been that way pretty much since she got into this business more than 40 years ago.

Our story starts in Ohio, where Dietz grew up and later attended Kent State University, majoring in architecture. She was one of just four women in a class of 150.

“Kerry is an outstanding example of what it means to be a community-oriented businesswoman. She is an extremely positive influence and role model for young professionals and the next generation of architects.”

After earning her master’s in architecture from Michigan State University, she worked for a few firms in Western Mass. before partnering with Phil Burdick and launching a firm that would bear both their names.

While that venture was short-lived, Dietz would go into business for herself, opening Dietz & Company Architects in 1985. It has been a staple in downtown Springfield ever since, growing from three employees to a high of 28 (currently 23).

Over those 34 years, Dietz and her staff have ridden out a number of economic downturns, which are felt in this field perhaps as much, if not more, than any other, and firmly established the firm as a leader in several areas, but especially the commercial, education, and housing realms.

The portfolio of recent projects includes the poker room and restrooms at the $960 million MGM Springfield as well as renovation of 95 State St., MGM’s local headquarters; bankESB’s banking center and corporate headquarters, as well as a number of other projects for that institution; 83 Maple St. in Springfield, the Merrick Phelps House historic preservation project; a new branch for the Bank of Western Massachusetts in Northampton; and many others.

In the education realm, the company has designed the UMass Center at Springfield facilities in Tower Square, the Hoffmann Environmental Center at Berkshire Community College, the King & Scales dormitories at Smith College, and numerous renovations and repair projects at Springfield Technical Community College, among countless others.

And in housing, recent projects include Parsons Village, multi-family housing in Easthampton; Roosevelt Towers, a multi-family project in Cambridge that is still ongoing; and Highland Woods, a multi-family and senior-housing project in Williamstown, among many others.

But while what she and her team have accomplished is certainly significant, it is how Dietz runs her company that sets her apart within the field of architecture — and makes it clear why she is a Woman of Impact.

Drawing Inspiration

And this brings us back to the company’s 30th-anniversary celebration, and also to that class she taught at UMass and the mindset behind it.

“We started reading these stories about how teachers were paying for stuff out of their own pockets and they can’t get tax deductions for it even,” she recalled. “And we thought, ‘what if we could fund some special projects that teachers wanted to do?”

Working in concert with Springfield School Volunteers, Dietz & Company invited teachers to visit a website and propose specific initiatives, listing motivations, goals, and possible outcomes. It was competition, but the company had enough money to fund all the requests.

“We had an awards ceremony at Central High School where we had wine and hors d’oeuvres for the teachers, because they don’t get recognized for all they do,” said Dietz. “And some of them are just amazing in terms of what they’re doing with the limited resources they have.”

The work with Springfield’s teachers, as noted, is just one example of the operating mindset at Deitz & Company, one that is perhaps best summed up in the company’s primary marketing slogan — ‘design that looks good, does good’ — with the supporting line: ‘with a collaborative and dynamic approach, our designs reflect the desire to create exceptional architecture that also serves.’

There is much that goes into those two words ‘good’ and ‘serves’ — everything from a focus on the environment to meeting the needs of the client; from preserving the past to sustainability. But behind it all is that focus on this firm, and especially its founder, being leaders in the community and setting a tone when it comes to giving back.

Indeed, when referring to Dietz, team members consistently use words and phrases like ‘mentor,’ ‘role model,’ and ‘inspiration’ to describe her as well as her approaches to architecture and community involvement.

“Kerry has shown an ongoing desire to give back to the community on many levels, from spearheading design-inspired solutions that serve the community through addressing housing and public-space needs, to a more grassroots-level approach by dedicating personal time and efforts to enrich the lives of others face-to-face,” said Mark Hellen, a project architect with the firm. “She continually teaches her staff and colleagues that there is great importance, and great need, in helping the communities that surround us in as many ways as possible.”

Jason Newman, another project architect, agreed.

“From the perspective of a young professional, Kerry’s drive to educate and develop the next generation of architects is as much present in her company as it is in the classroom,” he said. “She continually creates learning opportunities within the context of our work, and does not punish a mistake made with good intention.

“Our office is an environment of shared learning, equity, and support in all aspects of our operation,” he went on. “In my opinion, Kerry is an outstanding example of what it means to be a community-oriented businesswoman. She is an extremely positive influence and role model for young professionals and the next generation of architects.”

Newman took the class “Architects as Leaders.” He remembers it opening his eyes to the larger responsibilities of all people in business.

“We learned about public engagement, advocacy in local governments, and serving the greater context of the communities in which we work,” he told BusinessWest. “Our assignments throughout the semester included things like attending the local government meeting of our choice and forming conclusions on the social impact of the items on the agenda, good or bad. This class taught us the importance of being aware and participating in the big-picture issues at the forefront of our communities.”

The Bottom Lines

The big picture.

That’s always been what Kerry Dietz has been focused on.

That’s not the company’s bottom line — although she’s focused on that, too. Rather, it’s the health and vitality of the communities in which she lives, works, and designs buildings.

She doesn’t teach “Architects as Leaders” anymore — actually, time doesn’t permit her to do much, if any, teaching these days.

But she still lives by that credo, and so does her firm. And that’s a very solid foundation on which to build.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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