Top 500 Profile: Sound Strategy

No. 33 Gardner/Fox Associates uses a design-build approach to improve each project as well as the overall customer experience.

authors Kyle Clapham | June 3, 2020

Before joining Gardner/Fox Associates, Bill Walker saw the signs around town advertising their residential remodeling services. He worked at a construction company that bid on infrastructure jobs for states and municipalities but knew some of the projects they had done. About five years ago, he came on board as director of business development after seeing their operation firsthand.

“I’m very much our feet on the ground commercially,” says Walker, who oversees marketing for both the residential and commercial divisions of Gardner/Fox Associates, which was established in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in 1987. “I’m out meeting with clients and chasing projects. A lot of what we do is value-add, front-end planning, since we are design-build commercially and residentially.”

On the commercial side that usually requires preconstruction work and constructability reviews, so Walker stays involved until a contract is signed and the production team takes over. The business has integrated different types of construction well, he says, and as a result many employees have learned to wear multiple hats to help the company strike a balance between the work.

“We try to take a lot of the processes commercially and apply them residentially and vice versa,” Walker adds. “A lot of what we do residentially, there’s a lot more personal interaction with clients. That really helps us commercially. And a lot of the processes we have on the commercial side—how we run projects and structure them—helps us on the residential as well. It’s a nice balance.”

Gardner/Fox Associates does many specialty jobs for hospitals and laboratories, but the company does not build towers or high-rises, he notes. “The balance commercially is a little easier because we’ve been doing it for so long, we have a lot of clients that we work for year after year.”

On about three quarters of its commercial projects, the organization partners with other architects and project managers to complete the work, with the remaining jobs completed in-house. Gardner/Fox Associates began as a design-build company and follows the business model strictly for almost all its residential projects. But the approach has become more about a proactive frame of mind than a way of carrying out work.

“The reason it was set up as a design-build company is less about us providing design; it’s more about the mentality that we feel the project overall comes out better,” Walker says. “The client experience is better if everyone’s at the table early working together on a common goal. Why is the contractor handed the project and not involved up until [then]? Wouldn’t it be better to have everyone involved early on to iron out all the details, so that when things are built everyone’s on the same page?”

The business relied on print advertising and direct mail primarily when he started, although it did use some email marketing. Walker implemented a consistent email campaign to put content in front of current and past clients, potential customers and people who could refer family and friends.

“The simple way to look through the history of marketing, for me, is 40 years ago you wanted someone’s address,” he explains. “Thirty years ago, you wanted their phone number. Ten to 15 years ago, you wanted their email address. Now all you want to know is what their social media platform is and the IP address to their phone.”

The biggest challenge lately has been managing the information around coronavirus because it changes quickly and requires planning, Walker notes. “We want to retain our employees and maintain consistency for them. The ownership group meets every day just to touch base and understand what we need to do on a daily basis to keep things moving [along].”

While not able to be on a jobsite, the company initiated a robust training program for employees so they would be ready to get back to work. Gardner/Fox Associates also has been acquiring as much personal protective equipment as possible and using online meetings such as Zoom and GoToMeeting to interact with clients, who have adjusted to the extraordinary circumstances as well.

“They are very engaged, and I don’t sense—at least in a large percentage—any panic,” Walker says. “I don’t sense any concern. It’s mostly as long as they know we’re taking the appropriate steps, they are going to take the appropriate steps. We’re taking it as an opportunity to integrate more technology and also have a companywide training [program].” QR

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