2015 Legend: David Mourning

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The quarterly leadership meetings at the global firm IA Interior Architects include an initiation of sorts for newcomers. Firm leaders fly from around the world to one of the company’s 17 offices, and everyone gathers together around a big table for dinner. Then, all of a sudden, David Mourning will stand up—with all the inherent gravity of being founder and chairman, as well as his imposing six-foot-three-inch height, and say, “Who has the first joke?”

Those who have just joined the firm are startled. “You can see them turn white,” says Tom Powers, an IA co-executive director. “They say, ‘Wait a minute—architecture and design—that’s too serious, we don’t joke.’ But it’s one of the ways that brings people together.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done,” and he would doubtless approve of Mourning’s leadership of the largest global firm devoted solely to commercial interior design with a focus on workplace interiors. A genial diplomat rather than an aggressive general, Mourning has negotiated solutions to the needs of major corporations for more than four decades, including the last three leading IA. While Mourning is based in San Francisco, the IA presence and impact is nationwide in the design of workplaces large and small. If one is to understand the recent history of office design in the U.S., one must know David Mourning and IA. For his leadership in the profession, and for building the IA business into one of the most respected in the industry, David Mourning, FIIDA, is the 2015 recipient of the Contract Legend Award.

“David Mourning is among those pioneers in our industry who have been widely credited with creating the modern design firm,” says Cheryl Durst, Hon. FIIDA, executive vice president and CEO of IIDA. “That is, a firm in which a multi-disciplinary approach to creating the built environment is predicated on achieving optimal design excellence for the client.”

From the Plains to the islands to the City by the Bay
If you know the firm IA but have not known much about David Mourning, it’s by design. His eagerness to give others the spotlight, perhaps fostered by what he says was an Ozzie-and-Harriet-like upbringing on the Great Plains, has been essential to the development of the company. So how did a self-described “humble guy from Kansas” build a company that now employs 420 people worldwide? His story is also about how design firms have become leaders in order to meet the demands of multinational corporations, and how to maintain design excellence in the process.

Mourning’s peers recognize the role he has had in the profession. “When I see IA on a shortlist of competitors, I know that the client knows what they are doing,” says Daniel Huntsman, chairman of San Francisco–based Huntsman Architectural Group. “David and I started our firms at around the same time. We both struck out on our own in the early 1980s and wanted practices that focused on clients and not just projects. Neither of us wanted to grow the largest firm, only the best; firms where clients could be served and co-workers could enjoy their work and grow in their careers. His firm is among the few from that special era that have endured the test of time, buyout fever, and the many economic cycles.”

IA’s client list reads like a who’s who of the largest companies in the U.S., including Chevron, General Electric, AT&T, Fannie Mae, and UnitedHealth Group. Recent projects include Twitter’s 215,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco, completed in 2013 in collaboration with architect Olle Lundberg. For Twitter, IA completed the planning and design for the main workspace, creating a clean-lined open office punctuated by colorful hangout areas. Also in 2013 for the software company Red Hat, one of IA’s global accounts, the firm redesigned a staid 420,000-square-foot office building in Raleigh, North Carolina, into a new, energetic tech hub with a communal gathering space that deftly spans three floors.

IA had built its business with offices for financial sector clients. One such client is Bancolombia, the largest bank in Colombia, for which IA designed a 1.3-million-square-foot headquarters in 2009 (Contract, May 2010). Responding to Bancolombia’s great need for flexibility, IA created a layout with column-free floor plates, which served as the template for a team of local architects that designed the ground-up building.

“We are a very client-focused company—a lot of people say that, but that’s our DNA, that’s the people we hire,” says John Miesner, a principal based in San Francisco who has been with IA since 1990. “We’ve been able to build a reputation on exactly that: The clients know we’re going to be focused on their needs.”

Beginnings in St. Croix
On a November day in San Francisco, Mourning is wearing a business-casual outfit of a checked button-down under a pale blue pullover, khaki slacks, and tassel loafers, far different from his first job out of architecture school when he wore polo shirts with Bermuda shorts and sandals. After graduating from the University of Kansas in Lawrence with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in the politically fraught environment of the late 1960s, and wearied by his experience of “being a hippie,” he answered an ad from a university alum who was practicing architecture in the Virgin Islands. In St. Croix, he spent four years working on a broad spectrum of residential and commercial projects in the small practice run by Frank Blaydon, and quickly learned the fundamentals of construction.

Mourning also got an ego check while working in St. Croix that he took to heart. “I was sitting next to a gentleman who was an incredibly talented designer. And I thought I was really good, top of my class and all that. But this fellow just had that gift. He was that one tenth of one percent,” he says. “And I realized then and there that my future, if I was going to stay in the profession of architecture, would be that of a manager. A coach.”

In St. Croix, Mourning met Janet, a kindergarten teacher whom he would eventually marry. Together, they returned to the mainland U.S. in 1974 and settled in San Francisco. Janet started working for the furniture company Knoll, where she would become regional manager, and suggested that Mourning look into “this wonderful new discipline that I knew nothing about called interior design,” he says.

Mourning studied up on interior design and took a job with Environmental Planning and Research (EPR), a firm that was a pioneer in corporate interiors—one of the EPR founders, Darryl Roberson, would go on to establish STUDIOS Architecture. While many architects dream of designing an iconic building, Mourning found that interiors held more interest for him and also had the benefit of greater financial stability. He had found his new focus. “It is a lot more fun. The degree to which creativity plays a part in an interiors project, compared to base building architecture, is ten times,” he says. “I also noticed that the interiors practice is not subject to the ups and downs of the economy like base building practice is. Anyway, I fell in love with it.”

One of the first EPR projects he worked on in the mid-1970s was for the Bank of Hawaii. Inspired, he then suggested to his boss that the firm go after the major banks in San Francisco. Mourning discovered that he was good at selling to corporate customers like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, and didn’t mind the lengthy courtship process. “There were a lot of lunches, I played a lot of golf,” he recalls.

As the banking business was expanding, a prominent San Francisco architect gave Mourning a call in 1979, telling him about an opportunity to provide interior design services to IBM under an on-call contract. Today, these master services agreements—in which a vetted company contracts to provide services for set prices, saving clients from having to interview firms and negotiate on a project-by-project basis—are commonplace. But in the 1970s, it was a groundbreaking approach. Mourning seized this chance that the other architect declined to pursue, and won IBM’s business.

“I took this concept [of the master service agreement] to my banking clients, and they hit that like a trout hits a fly,” says Mourning. He then pitched the idea to investment banks like Merrill Lynch and Paine Webber, and gained even more long-term financial clients. Today, master contracts, many with long-standing clients, are responsible for at least half of the business of IA, which billed $73 million in projects in 2014.

Building a practice around a core competency
In the early 1980s, EPR was acquired by Texas-based firm Caudill Rowlett Scott (CRS) and the relationship between the two firms soon soured. That acquisition was the impetus for Mourning to start his own business.

“It was relatively easy because I had all these relationships with Merrill Lynch, but I did a couple of things differently that I felt were very important,” says Mourning. First, he was determined to make interiors the company’s only focus, rather than relegate interior design to a subset within a larger architecture firm where it could potentially have second-class status. “It was important that we provide an environment for people [who are all focused on commercial interiors],” Mourning says. “There were no cultural conflicts. We are all on the same train and we are moving together, and the power of that is pretty incredible.”

While other firms have pursued the soup-to-nuts approach of doing everything from strategic planning to architecture to engineering, IA has been able to expand by sticking to its core competency. “I think that was genius,” says San Francisco–based communications consultant Kenneth Caldwell, who did some work for IA in the early 2000s. “Confronted by all these names, a potential client must wonder, ‘Well, do they really understand my challenge, or are they architects who really want to do buildings?’ You know that [interiors] is IA’s focus.”

In addition, after seeing the clash of egos in the EPR acquisition, Mourning deliberately chose a company name that was not tied to him. The inclusiveness of the name extends to his management style, which is essentially collaborative. “He shares the room very well with other IA staff in a presentation with a client,” says Miesner. “He will turn to you and ask you for your input and expertise, and everyone is engaged on a very comfortable level.”

With a first office in Los Angeles in 1984, IA quickly grew to about 20 people with $2.5 million in billings at the end of its first year. It expanded to San Francisco in 1985, then Washington, D.C., and New York in 1986.

The firm was able to grow steadily and weather a few mild recessions without too many problems. But as with every other business, the market crash in September 2008 was a major shock. “I was at a CoreNet conference in Berlin at the time, and I watched [on TV as] four of our biggest, most significant clients went out of business while I was there,” says Mourning. “[The recession] totally changed our DNA.” After a staggering 40 percent drop in revenue, he credits the IA sales and marketing team with saving the firm by going into overdrive and developing new clients in the tech industry. While IA had been known as a go-to firm for the financial sector, tech businesses now constitute nearly half of IA’s total work.

“Our growth philosophy has been to identify a market where we want to be and find the very best person in that market to come on board,” Mourning says. “We typically do not open an office because of a project.” Today, IA is organized according to a distributed model with no headquarters. The firm’s largest offices are in San Francisco (85 employees), Seattle (70), Chicago (45), and New York (40). This year, it will open two new offices in Toronto and Portland, Oregon.

“Due to David’s leadership, IA has grown into one of the most successful and largest design firms on the planet,” says Stanford Hughes, a founding principal of the San Francisco–based firm now known as BraytonHughes Design Studios. “What I admire most is that IA continues to grow and establish new ways of working in the constantly changing workplace world while always being conscious of and raising the design bar. It is quite delightful to look at the variety and quality of projects IA has produced over the years under David’s leadership.”

Focusing on business while valuing people
While Mourning is definitely focused on the firm’s business—he keeps printed profit-and-loss spreadsheets for each office in his DayTimer, in a bit of old-school practice—he doesn’t forget that even the most massive project has a human component. At a recent meeting with a major publishing company, he took the conversation in a different direction beyond dollars and square footage. “The meeting was led by the publishing CFO and the whole thing had been all about numbers, numbers, numbers,” says Julio Braga, IIDA, a design principal in IA’s New York office who is the current international president of IIDA. “David said, ‘That sounds great, but aren’t we going to talk about how we are going to make people happy, because this is for 5,000 employees?’ Finding that he has that sensibility, for someone who has been running a company and is more of a businessperson, surprises some people.”

“The people we hire are entrepreneurs and could have led their own offices, but they chose to be with a group of peers,” says Mourning. To ensure that IA would have a smooth transition in leadership, he recently transferred day-to-day management to an executive committee and began selling off his ownership stake to senior management and the employee stock ownership plan. Tom Powers, based in Chicago, and David Bourke, based in New York and Washington, D.C., are the co-executive directors of the firm.

As companies look to design firms to create enticing workplace interiors that will enable greater recruitment and retention of key talent, Mourning has built the go-to firm for them. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance—the next four to six years are going to be the best our industry has seen,” says Mourning. “Clients are seeking out IA because of the great design work we are doing—powerful, fun, exciting design.”

IA’s own San Francisco office—recently updated with an open floor plan, long white benches, cozy enclosed nooks, and casual gathering areas—underscores that the firm is a leading workplace design practice. A wooden bench in the main conference room appears to extend through a glass wall into the kitchen, so you feel like you’re a party to the action from each side. As Mourning knows, these small touches show that a company cares about its people.

“The people that make up IA are really the backbone, and the vast majority of people are here because of the inspiration that David Mourning brings to the table,” says Powers. “He is a genuine individual. He cares about you, about your family, he cares about design and that it needs to be really good. And most importantly. He cares about the clients. We know that if we don’t take care of our clients, they won’t take care of us, and that comes directly from David Mourning.”