One Year Later: HOK reflects on lessons learned post-acquisition

Peter Sloan and Tom Waggoner

Peter Sloan and Tom Waggoner

Last January, HOK announced it would acquire 360 Architecture, a 200-person architecture firm specializing in sports, recreation, entertainment and mixed-use projects, located in the heart of Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District. Today, the firm’s leadership is reflecting on the challenges, perks, and lessons learned from combining forces with one of the industry’s most respected players.

Day-to-day

Tom Waggoner, managing principal of HOK’s Kansas City office, told his clients to expect very little change during the transition.

“I told my clients that if they came to our office, the only difference would be our sign on the door and my email address,” he said. “Those of us in leadership positions that represent the company have been able to maintain what we were doing with little to no effect in our relationships with clients and our ability to deliver what they hire us to do.”

While new systems were incorporated for processes like accounting, human relations, information technology, and marketing, the transition was more or less seamless.

“None of the folks we had in our previous world at 360 have left, nor has anyone new come into Kansas City to set up shop and help with new infrastructure,” Waggoner said. “We certainly have new resources that we’re tied into, but day-to-day, it’s just like the old days.”

Perhaps it’s because it wasn’t the firm’s first rodeo. Peter Sloan, vice president at HOK, said the firm navigated these waters a decade ago when CDFM2 Architecture combined with Heinlein Schrock Stearns to create 360 Architecture. Since then, an important piece of the company’s mindset has been to stay ahead of the curve.

“One thing that’s been consistent with our philosophy from a corporate perspective is that we always try to figure out how to anticipate the next step and position everyone here to be successful,” Sloan said. “Ultimately, how do we provide better design and better value to our clients? Every one of the steps in the evolution of who we are has been about those things.”

Waggoner agreed that living through a previous merger proved to be invaluable.

“The lessons learned through that were certainly top of mind, and it proved to be true that the opportunities, challenges, and differences between what you were and what you were becoming played out to a T,” Waggoner said. “It played out to a larger scale, but having that encyclopedia of how to go about doing this really helped us.”

Melding cultures

As the two entities began to integrate, it became evident the firms had similar values. But most importantly, HOK had a great admiration for the way 360’s leadership led the firm and established an inviting company culture over the years.

“Today, we still view ourselves as a family – though granted, we’re a bigger family now. We’ve added more grandkids and great grandkids, and we have an extended family now in other offices,” Sloan said. “We’ve tried hard to maintain our personality and why people like being here, but the ethos of the quality of work has not changed. The tools by which we can get things done are the only part that has changed. But how we go about doing it and how we present ourselves to clients has not changed; If anything, we are even more committed to Kansas City because now we’ve got the ability to do more than we had ever been able to do.”

New opportunities

Tapping into new areas of expertise will provide a wealth of additional opportunities, Waggoner said. For years, 360 Architecture had been looking for ways to continually evolve its practice by tapping into new markets like health care, aviation, justice, and science and technology. And almost overnight, HOK became the solution.

“When HOK reached out to us, it solved all of those things for us,” Sloan said. “With one fell swoop, it solved all of those things that we were really challenging ourselves to solve.”

Sloan says HOK’s vast network allows the firm to tap into additional resources, thought leadership, and new areas of expertise, which opens up the team’s ability to enter new markets and work on additional types of projects.

For example, Sloan has tackled numerous local projects with Polsinelli – including Plaza Vista – but with HOK, he is now able to travel with the law firm to other parts of the country as needed.

“Very few people are doing work in one city; Our clients are looking at other places,” he said. “With this new network, we’re just beginning to flex these muscles and learn what these muscles are about, but in the 12 months we’ve been doing this, I personally have been absolutely loving it. It’s been great for myself and my clients in terms of hitting the ground and leveraging those aspects, and working in other offices and seeing how things are going.”

HOK’s network of offices across the country has also allowed its associates to take control their career trajectory. Some have found new homes in Los Angeles or San Francisco but remain within the world of HOK, while others have returned to Kansas City.

“To allow that sort of nimbleness to occur has been another huge benefit that gives individuals an opportunity to go grow elsewhere,” Sloan said. “Having that ability from an HR perspective has been a nice subtle benefit. The individuals we are looking to hire like that idea. It comes back to more opportunities across the board, whether it’s project-wise, professionally, or personally.”

HOK is leading the design efforts for the Dairy Farmers of America’s new headquarters at Village West in Kansas City, Kan. More information on that project can be found here.

HOK is leading the design efforts for the Dairy Farmers of America’s new headquarters at Village West in Kansas City, Kan. More information on that project can be found here.

Local impact

In years past, the team has had to pass up various local and regional opportunities because of its lack of expertise in other areas. Now, the firm is looking to expand its portfolio of local work.

“We now have the ability to look locally and regionally for opportunities that in the past we could only watch and pursue one or two, because we didn’t have the expertise that we now have access to,” Waggoner said.

That means doubling down on its work with local clients, and throwing its hat in the ring for new opportunities, like the overhaul of Kansas City International Airport.

But while the firm’s focus is expanding, Waggoner said he still wants to maintain the local presence and service the firm is known for. And that has proven to be the biggest challenge over the course of the transition: to educate the public on who HOK is.

“We recognize that it will take some time for people to have the same understanding of what our brand means to them. There are a lot of people who we want to understand who we are and what our commitments are,” Sloan said. “We want to make sure people understand that we are endemic to Kansas City; We’ve grown up here, and we care deeply about the city. The people here are excited about what we can do and accomplish here locally, and the opportunity in front of us is really exciting.”

That HOK now has such a strong presence in Kansas City should speak volumes to the community, Sloan said.

“This is really the first national design firm to have a presence in Kansas City. Most architects want to graduate and go to big design firms, and the only places they could go to were Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles,” Sloan said.

Next month, Sloan will embark on a recruitment tour where he’ll sell Kansas City to potential future HOK associates.

“What Kansas City offers is an affordable living aspect, a design opportunity to actually make a difference quickly, and a support at work that’s remarkable. The city just has a coolness factor, and an art layer that for those of us in the design community care deeply about, and an accessibility factor that few other cities have,” he said. “From Kansas City’s perspective, it’s a big deal that HOK is here. The city should be proud that this has occurred from their perspective. The people that worked tirelessly to grow this practice and what we’ve been able to create is a testament to what the city has allowed us to foster. There’s nothing but excitement moving ahead for all of us.”